Laughter breaks out from inside a small conference room at Sharp Memorial Outpatient Pavilion. To an outsider, the sound is unexpected — the people gathered together all have advanced cancer.
For them, life is a series of unknowns, filled with doctor’s appointments, treatments, side effects and scans. Yet they display unmistakable joy — joy, they’ll tell you, that comes from knowing the end can come sooner than later, and choosing to appreciate the time they have left.
These are members of the Living With Advanced Cancer Support Group, a close-knit gathering for patients whose cancer has metastasized, or spread to other parts of their bodies. Metastatic cancer is more difficult to treat and can lead to therapies with more severe side effects. Often, it’s terminal.
But living, not dying, has been the focus of the group since Cara Allen, a licensed clinical social worker at Sharp Memorial Hospital, launched it in 2007.
“It was a very purposeful title,” says Allen, who still leads the group. “That’s what everyone in this room is doing, regardless of what diagnosis they have.”
The group of women and men meets twice each month inside the Laurel Amtower Cancer Institute at Sharp Memorial to share stories, ask questions, always laugh and sometimes cry. At each meeting Allen poses an intentionally broad topic, such as seasons, and allows the members to explore what the phrase means to them.
“It’s one of the most uplifting groups I’ve ever been in,” says Laura McCormick, who has stage 4 colon cancer. “I was nervous about coming. I thought, ‘I don’t want to talk about dying.’ But it’s not about that. It’s about living.”
The circle of friends, as they quickly become, says they appreciate meeting others who understand the physical and emotional complexities of advanced cancer. Barbara Wyatt, who has stage 4 breast cancer, says the group fulfills a need to share her experience.
“I could talk to my daughter, but she’s in Houston. I’m here,” says Wyatt. “I can get things off my chest here, and I don’t have to worry her.”
Sometimes, when someone in the group passes away, the meetings can be difficult. But through the sadness, members say they find great comfort in continuing to show up.
“You learn that life continues,” says Norma Short, who has stage 4 colon cancer. “We are all walking the same path. The important thing is to be grateful for the time we got to spend together.”
The Living With Advanced Cancer Support Group meets the first and third Thursdays of each month at the Sharp Memorial Outpatient Pavilion.