For the past three years, I have driven 45 minutes every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from my home in Laurens to Greenville Memorial Hospital.
It’s not for work. It’s for a mission. A mission to help cancer survivors with their recovery efforts via Greenville Health System’s Cancer Support Community. I know what the recovery process is like and why it is important because I am a cancer survivor myself.
I am a breast cancer survivor. Healing from my first surgery took more than eight weeks, so radiation benefits were limited. After talking to my oncologist, I decided to skip radiation, take oral medications, have a second surgery and make lifestyles changes.
For the first six months, everything was great. Then my check-up showed lymphedema. The lymphedema therapists at CIOS taught me to manage that condition. Six months later I developed gynecologic concerns, not cancer but progressive and disabling. More surgery was needed. With constant support from CSC counselors and nurse navigators, after nine months to heal followed by six weeks of physical therapy and 12 weeks of oncology rehab, I felt more like myself.
That entire process was aided by a support network. This network is now a major reason I volunteer to help others, even as I continue to benefit from that network with my personal health and well-being.
The Cancer Support Community offers an array of non-medical services such as support groups, group social activities, specialized classes related to diagnosis and classes on healthy living. That is the overview answer. The best way I can explain what it means is by telling you some of my own experiences.
- Tuesday is our busiest group day. We have exercise classes, music, Lunch Bunch social activities and our walking club. The goal is to walk a mile; the reality is sometimes it takes nearly an hour to get that far for people in recovery. The speed and distance are not the real measure. It is the time together. No matter the route we go—we have a variety that take us inside and outside—the goal is building a community among our members. Sharing stories. Sharing tips. Sharing encouragement. And, of course, getting Starbucks. If there is one thing that is standard each time, it is getting Starbucks. They see us coming and start getting our orders ready.
- Exercise classes are a major part of the program. Battling cancer is tremendously hard on the physical body, and it takes a long time—even for the most in-shape people—to get back their strength and to learn how to stay physically active. That is why you might see a yoga class where some people are stretching and other people are in chairs. The program is built to meet the needs of all levels in a safe class taught by physical therapists that understand oncology recovery. Again, the time healing together is what’s important.
- I always enjoy music therapy. This class is important because music helps us with memory and focus as well as with stress management. Many cancer treatments cause problems thinking, and being a survivor is stressful in so many ways. The music therapy class helps us build confidence and manage the stress we experience as we learn to live with a diagnosis. An added advantage of this class is that it gives us the opportunity to “give back” by providing opportunities for us to sing for other survivors.
- The people in the CSC program are from across the Upstate. I think that is important because CSC helps us see cancer through different lenses. We are people from all over who share a common life changing experience. We each bring our personal gifts and strengths to the group. With the guidance and skilled leadership of GHS oncology professionals, our goal is to support each other—to celebrate when reports are good and to be present when more treatment is needed.
- On Thursdays we have walking club, a women’s support group and Healthy Way Lifestyle Class. The nutrition classes really open people’s eyes. Eating well is a major part of recovery and self-care. The program goes over skills like learning how to read a label and understanding terms like mindful eating and portion control. We also sample healthy foods and even have cooking classes sometimes.
The most important thing about the program is learning that life changes after a cancer diagnosis. It seems like people who have never had cancer think once you are told cancer treatment is completed, your hair grows back, you go back to work and everything goes back to the way life was before diagnosis. I believe life is different after diagnosis, but still good.
It takes a long time and much effort to get back in control. The healing process involves body, mind and spirit. Even relationships and social connections need time to heal.
There is an African proverb I often think about: “If you have to travel fast, travel alone. If you have to travel far, travel with companions.” The GHS oncology staff gets us through the treatment phase as quickly as possible and Cancer Support Community provides those companions for the rest of the process.
Ginny Cartee is a cancer survivor and a volunteer with the GHS Cancer Support Community. Learn more about CSC here.