By James Bouquin East Bay Times guest commentary
Cancer. The very word evokes our deepest feelings of fear, suffering, even shame. It permeates our culture and our lexicon. We call the worst teammate a “cancer in the clubhouse.” We console the worst misfortune with “at least it’s not cancer.” Fifty years after John Wayne grudgingly acknowledged the “Big C,” cancer still looms as some kind of stigmatized specter.
After all, cancer is an illness like no other. With treatments that can be almost as damaging as the disease itself, it forces us to make the most difficult decisions of our lives. It is a loss of control, a betrayal, at our cellular level. It threatens our trust in our bodies and ourselves, and brings us face to face with our own mortality. Indeed, the mind-body connection is most evident in the physical, emotional, and spiritual impact of cancer.
Dr. Michael Lerner, the founder of Commonweal and a leader in the field of integrative therapies, gives a lyrical expression to the experience: “There are two wolves and they are always fighting. One is darkness and despair. The other is light and hope. Which one wins? Whichever one you feed.”
And hope matters. A large body of clinical research over the past several years has confirmed the strong links between peer support, psychological stressors, feelings of loneliness or hopelessness, immune system functioning and cancer treatment outcomes. Back in the 1980s, Dr. David Spiegel of Stanford University found that women with advanced breast cancer who attended therapist-led support groups lived an average of 18 months longer than those who received medical treatment alone. Thirty years later, Dr. Barbara Andersen of Ohio State is finding the same results.
We are fortunate to live in a region with some of the best medical care in the world. And with continuing advances in their treatment, more and more cancers are transforming from fatal diseases to recurrent or chronic or manageable illnesses.
So it’s fair to expect that most of us will become a cancer patient, a cancer survivor or a cancer caregiver at some point in our lives. And learning how to live with cancer will become the theme of our children’s and grandchildren’s generations.
This begins with community, the courage of folks like Mark DeSaulnier and Dan Borenstein to share their experiences, the realization that we’re not alone and that there is help and hope.
We are also fortunate to have the largest cancer support center in North America here in the East Bay. Cancer Support Community provides support groups, counseling, dietary support, adapted exercise and mind-body classes, and a wide variety of patient and survivor education programs.
We serve more than 2,000 people with cancer and their families each year, and everything is always provided free of charge. For more information, see our website at www.cancersupport.net.
People with cancer generally come to us because they want to live longer and — along with their medical team — we help them to do that. However, the cancer experience also teaches us that it’s not how long we live, but how well we live that really matters.
Together in community, we learn from each other what’s truly important: to give help when we can and to accept help when we need it; to have someone to love and to show them that we love them; to learn from our past and prepare for our future but to make sure that today is purposeful and meaningful. This indeed is the essence of community and our humanity.
James Bouquin is CEO and executive director Cancer Support Community, San Francisco Bay Area in Walnut Creek.
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