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Dr. Jeff Kane: Offering support

Dr. Jeff Kane
Columnist

I’m retired now, but when I’m asked about my former medical practice I say I facilitated support groups for cancer patients and their families. The response is often some version of, “Oh, that must be so depressing. I mean, all those people crying on each other’s shoulders.”

Nope. It wasn’t like that at all. Sure, there was some crying and even screaming, but there was lots of laughing, too. Here’s what happens in a support group: people learn from each other — the only truly qualified experts — how to navigate life with cancer.

Much of a meeting, of course, involves the illness itself. How can I get a second opinion? What do you do when chemo side effects become unmanageable? Is shark cartilage an effective treatment? What about modifying my diet?

But the bulk of the conversation revolves around attitudes, emotions, and relationships — the major human functions affected by cancer, and, actually, all illness. What should I tell my kids? I’m depressed. My partner doesn’t understand what I’m going through. My family gets angry when I talk about stopping treatment.

Here’s what happens in a support group: people learn from each other — the only truly qualified experts — how to navigate life with cancer.

Having experienced thirty-five years of these meetings — and non-cancer meetings, too — I’ve concluded that support groups aren’t about particular illnesses as much as how to lead one’s life under trying conditions. I’ve also discovered that we get the most useful help from people who are experiencing issues similar to ours.

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Illness is isolating. We draw into ourselves. Having reduced outside influences, we dwell in our own echo chamber, and there, in a common process called “awfulizing,” we exaggerate the most terrible possibilities. Haunted by these dreadful scenarios, we can start believing we’ve gone off the deep end. But an effective support group exposes us to more positive perspectives and coping strategies that we hadn’t considered.

Another group attribute is intimacy — intimacy with others and, more importantly, with oneself. It’s a rare cancer patient who doesn’t ask questions they’d never before pondered: where will I go when I die?; how long do I want to live, and how?; is what I want the same as what I need? For most of our life we regard these issues as airy philosophizing. But a serious diagnosis has a way of strutting them out onto center stage. I see that process as various ways of asking the question, “Since you’re running out of time, what do you need to do — right now?”

Some people take that question seriously, others see it as California workshop pap. Which is to say support groups aren’t for everyone. If you decide to try one, I suggest you attend more than one session, since conduct and issues vary from meeting to meeting. Your ideal group is the one that feels more like an adventure you look forward to than a treatment you endure.

Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.


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