Saturday, May 5, 2012

Before You Start That Cancer Support Group, Especially If You Have That Cancer

We all need support. Especially if a disease or chronic condition is part of life. That is particularly true in the world of cancer. The person who has cancer needs support; their immediate caregiver and family (if the two are different) need support; if there are children, they need support, as do parents, siblings, spouses. Everybody. Thankfully, the Internet opens up doors that were never possible before.

It used to be a person tried to find a support group where they lived. If one wasn't handy, they suffered or started one themselves. That's still a viable and great option. There's nothing like a real shoulder to cry on, person to lean on, ears to hear, and real arms to give a hug.

The Internet, particularly Facebook, makes it easier to connect with people around the world who walk in shoes similar to yours. There are all kinds of groups on Facebook. The ones I want to focus on are those that deal with supporting people who live with a disease that can be deadly, like cancer in general and melanoma in particular and melanoma is the example I will use because that's the one I'm intimately familiar with.

The Teacher tells us in Ecclesiastes 4: 9-12,
It's better to have a partner than go it alone.
   Share the work, share the wealth.
   And if one falls down, the other helps,
   But if there's no one to help, tough!

  Two in a bed warm each other.
   Alone, you shiver all night.

  By yourself you're unprotected.
   With a friend you can face the worst.
   Can you round up a third?
   A three-stranded rope isn't easily snapped. (The Message)

In the world of melanoma, we all want to be that "partner." We want to be there to share and help; to make sure no one is alone if we can help it. We want to be that friend when fellow warriors face the worst melanoma can bring their way. Some of us are called to make sure extra strands are part of the picture in order to provide as much support as possible.

And that's good and worthy and noble. It's a high calling and lofty aspiration. It's desperately needed. And it requires someone who is sure that's the path God is leading them down because it requires someone with a strong heart, pliable spirit, pliable heart, strong spirit, plenty of tears, nerves of steel, compassion, and the ability to stand with someone as they say good bye to this world and hello to the next. It requires someone who can say "I hate melanoma but I trust God more than I hate melanoma."

And, no, I"m not talking about me. People expect that to be part of the "preacher package." I'm talking about the person who has no training in pastoral care of the dying, but chooses to allow a part of themselves to die with each friend. I'm talking about the person who hasn't learned to be a hospital chaplain but chooses to  minister to as many as possible because they feel it's the right thing for them to do. I'm talking about the person who has melanoma and knows it can kill them and knows the stories they'll hear as they share lives can becomes their story but they choose to walk the road with as many as possible even though it causes their heart to break countless times in countless ways.

I'm talking about the lay person who feels led, by God, to begin a cancer support group, either face-to-face or online. If you feel this is something you want to pursue, be prepared.

Be prepared to become more than the group leader. You will come to know and love every person that joins your group. No matter how active or inactive they choose to be, you will immediately identify with them and care because they have what you have. You share shoes.

Be prepared to get closer to some than to others. Some you'll actually know or get to meet in person along the journey. If and when their journey takes a downward turn, be prepared because you've already chosen to walk this through to the end with them. You will want to do no less and to do less will become unthinkable. Be prepared. It will rip your heart out. Every time.

Be prepared to pray and to cuss. Just a little. A little cussing and a lot of praying. Never reverse the order; though, to be honest, you may go through seasons when you want to throw in the towel. Be prepared for those seasons because at least one will come. Be prepared to stick with it for the simple reason that you can't and won't desert the ones you love and who depend on you.

Be prepared for tears because they'll come, but also be prepared for joy, laughs, and miracles because they'll come too.

Be prepared for your heart to break and be prepared for it to mend and for you to become a stronger you than you ever thought possible. Every time your heart breaks and mends, you'll be different. Somehow. More resolved and determined than ever to do what you can to provide support and see a cure. More resolved and determined that you'll be there for your friends but you don't want more "friends" so you get more involved and work against that which works against you.

Be prepared for life changes because the more stories you hear, the closer you become to people, the more you see your story reflected in theirs, the more of a force to reckon with you'll become. And that can be a good thing. Make sure it's a good thing.

Be prepared to give your group all you've got to give, not because you have to but because you love them and admire them and because you want to. Because you know deep down and on the surface that one day you may need to hand the reins of your group over to someone else because melanoma has reared its head in such a way that you can't continue. Because you'll want someone there for you the way you've been there for others.

This isn't something everyone on the planet is cut out for or called to do. Often the ones called never thought of themselves as being cut out for this but wouldn't trade their group for the world.

Providing a place to share, help, support, and make those strong strands and keeping it going, growing, and being all that it can and should be isn't easy work. But it's necessary. It's a God-given ministry and when He calls, He resources and makes able. It's tough as hell and harder than people can imagine if they are group members only.

And it is gratifying. For all who lead cancer support groups in general and melanoma support groups in particular...

We, your beneficiaries, are mighty grateful!