It’s a pretty well-known fact that having access to a support network is an essential tool for surviving any big life struggle. To have people to talk and relate to is extremely remedying. I’ve always known this and yet, for some reason, I never could bring myself to attend a cancer support group.
Why? I suppose I feared that by showing up and surrounding myself with other sick people, and by announcing myself as a cancer survivor and patient, I’d be letting this disease define me. I felt stringently that by avoiding these affiliations and carrying on with my life as much as possible while going through treatment, I wouldn’t lose my identity.
Turns out I was wrong. By intentionally avoiding this network I was unintentionally depriving myself of something vital to my survival — emotional support.
You know that feeling when you don’t realize how thirsty you are until the water touches your lips and suddenly you’re gulping the glass down like you haven’t drunk in years? That’s how it felt to be surrounded by people with cancer for the first time. I didn’t realize how much I needed to be related to until I was sitting in a room encircled by those who had been through everything I had. Who had also lost their hair and spent countless hours in the hospital, who had ports and PICC line scars, who knew exactly what it was like to be “the girl with cancer.”
This is not to say I don’t have support from my friends and family. I do. A lot, actually. But it isn’t the same. And that’s not their fault, either. How can anyone who hasn’t gone through this personally really understand it? It’s like when you’ve been on an amazing trip overseas and you come home and tell your friends all about it and their eyes glaze over because they simply cannot relate.
I think one of the biggest problems with cancer is how much it’s stigmatized by society and remains such a taboo topic. People just don’t like talking about something that reminds them so brazenly of death, so they avoid it, they skirt around it, they sweep it under the carpet. But the less it’s spoken about, the more taboo it becomes.
This is damaging as it prevents folks who don’t have the illness from learning how to be there for someone who does. They pull back in fear of saying the wrong thing, they don’t mention it, they don’t ask you how you are, they avoid the elephant in the room.
So often I’m the one who brings it up. Or alternatively, if someone does ask how I’m doing, I suspect they don’t actually want the real truth. They want to hear that everything is OK and that I’ll be just fine — not that I’m exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown and constantly terrified I might die. Not that I’m tired of being the “strong” one, the “brave” one, the “inspiration.” But not many people can really stomach that kind of truth on a Tuesday morning. So, I stifle my truth and they stifle their questions.
They, luckily, get to carry on. As for me, I have to carry the weight of all my fears and all the smiles I plaster across my face, even when I’m not OK, to make others comfortable. I try not to bring it up too much with my friends because I feel I’m being a burden. Who wants to be the girl talking about their trauma on a Friday night out on the town?
And then suddenly you go to a support group and it hits you. The thirst quencher. The realization that there are people out there who know exactly what it feels like to be young and ill. To feel unattractive, go through menopause at 26, and live with fatigue, insomnia, an inability to exercise, infertility, and depression. They know of anxiety leading up to scans, blood transfusions, stem cell transplants, surgeries, and good ol’ bone pain.
It’s good to be normal. It’s good to have friends who make you forget about cancer, who treat you like they always have and make you feel like yourself.
But it isn’t enough.
The gravity of this illness has to be felt. It has to be shared with others who have also borne this weight.
Going to a support group for me was like taking off my shield, dumping it on the floor, and realizing just how heavy a burden I had been lugging around for months.
It felt like finally coming home.
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