When Marsha Butler was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she was told she had three months to live. Unwilling to accept that, Butler went to another doctor for a second opinion and underwent chemotherapy treatments. Now, three-and-a-half years after her initial diagnosis, Butler belongs to Touched By Cancer, an ecumenical support group hosted by St. Michael’s Parish in Newark.
Butler joined the group when it formed last October. She joined it hoping her own experiences would provide support for others dealing with cancer.
“If I go maybe there’ll be some other people there that need to know that it’s not a death sentence when they tell you you’ve got cancer,” she recalled thinking. “I want to be of support to some other people.”
Pat Albrecht, pastoral minister at St. Michael’s, discovered the need for such a supportive group after being diagnosed with breast cancer 18 months ago. She founded the group with the help of Joanne Palmer, a St. Michael’s parishioner and fellow breast-cancer survivor.
“I felt a need for some kind of support group that wasn’t all doom and gloom and was faith-centered,” Albrecht said.
Faith and prayer are the key elements of Touched By Cancer, Albrecht said. Those who attend the meetings pray for each other, and each meeting begins and ends with prayer. A different member plans and leads opening prayer at each meeting.
The group is open to anyone who’s dealt with any type of cancer, including caregivers and the spouses, children and parents of people with cancer, Albrecht said. In fact, one of the group’s strengths is the variety of viewpoints and experiences its members have had, Palmer said.
“Everyone has a different perspective and has gone through different things,” Palmer said. “You can share information. Maybe somebody has information that you don’t know.”
Although every person brings a different viewpoint, everyone at the meetings is bound together by one common factor — experience with cancer. Through this experience, the members of Touched By Cancer are able to support and relate to each other.
“People who aren’t dealing with it themselves may be sympathetic and think they understand, but they don’t really understand. People who aren’t dealing with it on a day-to-day basis don’t understand,” Butler said.
Lorraine Hause was diagnosed with colon cancer in March 2004 and joined Touched By Cancer several months later because “I needed support from people that had a lot of faith.” At Touched By Cancer meetings she’s been able to share her fears in an open and honest way, something she was reluctant to do before joining the group.
“I had some fears but I didn’t want to give them to my children because I knew they were dealing with a lot,” she said.
At the meetings she’s able to let those fears out because she’s surrounded by people who understand and may have even experienced similar feelings, she said.
Discussion and sharing follow the opening prayer at each meeting. The discussion is driven by what those in attendance feel like talking about, Albrecht said. These discussions run the gamut from the fear a breast-cancer patient feels when she goes in for a check-up mammogram, the effects a chemotherapy treatment has and what it feels like to not be able to do everything you were used to doing, Butler added.
Those may sound like dismal topics, but group members often find ways of adding humor to their discussions, Palmer said. This humor is one of the reasons Palmer said she comes away from Touched By Cancer meetings feeling uplifted. The meetings also remind her she’s not alone, she added.
Attending Touched By Cancer meetings has helped Hause keep from feeling sorry for herself, she said. She occasionally reminds herself and her fellow group members that cancer isn’t the only thing that kills people. People who have cancer have a lot to deal with, she reminds them, but so do those facing other diseases or problems such as violence or poverty.
“We’ve made such a word out of cancer. When they talk cancer, they talk gloom and doom,” Hause said, noting her cancer diagnosis did come with a silver lining. “I wish this didn’t happen to me, but I have met some beautiful people.”
Another vital part of Touched By Cancer is outreach, group members say. If they hear about someone who was recently diagnosed with cancer or touched by the disease in another way, group members will often try to contact that person, Hause said, recalling a time when she called the wife of a man who had recently been told he had cancer.
Several of the group members are also considering involvement in the American Cancer Society’s upcoming Relay for Life, Butler said.
The next Touched By Cancer meeting will be May 14 at 10 a.m. in St. Michael’s parish center, 401 S. Main St., Newark. For more information, contact the parish at 315/331-6753.