The women sit around a conference table in a room that may seem more suited to a business meeting than a discussion about life and death, love and loss, and so much more. Some chat, happy to be reunited, while others sit quietly, a mix of fear, sadness and hope on their faces. These women have gathered for the monthly Living With Advanced Cancer Support Group.
The group meets at the Barnhart Cancer Center at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center and is facilitated by Cara Fairfax, a licensed clinical social worker. The group is open to anyone living with stage 4, metastatic or chronic cancer. The attendees come together to share their thoughts and feelings related to having an incurable cancer. It is a safe place to discuss treatments, death and dying, finding support and staying hopeful.
“When a person learns that they have advanced cancer or their cancer progresses to that stage, the overall response is one of grief and loss — loss of what was normal, loss of health, loss of potential for a cure, loss of whatever is most important to them,” Fairfax says. “They begin to think about their own mortality, their families, their past and their future. Many share a fear of pain — their own and their family’s — and not living.”
According to Fairfax, discussions such as those that take place in the group can comfort attendees in their greatest time of need. Here, they are given permission to talk and cry about their diagnosis or to simply listen.
They learn to be patient with themselves and be confident in knowing that their fear, worry, anger and even their sense of peace is normal. There is no wrong emotion. Along with some of the negative feelings associated with a cancer diagnosis, group members often share hope.
“A person living with an advanced cancer has to constantly juggle the reality of their situation with positivity and hope, even though what is hoped for may change over time, as hope for a cure may not ‘fit’ their situation anymore,” Fairfax says. “It is possible to be hopeful and optimistic and still be real about the anticipated progression of a stage 4 cancer. Not all people with a stage 4 cancer are suffering all the time.”
In fact, one member of the group has continued to pursue her love of travel, even after her advanced cancer diagnosis. She and her husband load their dogs into their RV and travel for weeks at a time. She even plans her chemotherapy around her trips or schedules her treatment at other medical centers around the country.
“People with stage 4 cancer can live for years with medical management,” Fairfax says. “Many people with advanced cancer are working, volunteering, playing, socializing and traveling. They know how fragile life is and can learn to push through the fear and continue to live. They may do things less energetically than before cancer, but when they have energy, they use it.”
For the news media: To talk with Cara Fairfax, MSW, LCSW, CN-BM, about advanced cancer support groups for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.