A helping hand for women with breast cancer

Photos courtesy of Women Living with Cancer Support Group Members of Women Living with Cancer Support Group enjoy a luncheon on the water.

There’s nothing much scarier than finding out you have breast cancer. Your mind’s awhirl. “What do I do now? What does the future hold? How am I going to get through this?”

In the Keweenaw, a support group called Women Living with Cancer is here to help.

“We are your cancer support team,” says Mary Zanoni, a cancer survivor and member of the group. “Our support group is the place where cancer patients can talk about their experiences, emotions and issues, knowing that everyone there understands what they are going through on a personal level and can offer real compassion and good ideas to help them on their cancer journey.”

The Women Living with Cancer Support Group (WLCSG) meets monthly, at 7 p.m. the last Wednesday of the month, alternating between UP Health System-Portage in Hancock and Aspirus Keweenaw in Laurium. They also sponsor numerous events throughout the year. The group provides a safe space to share feelings and fears, a chance to share resources “and to laugh a little,” says Zanoni.

The support group is open to all women dealing with cancer–newly diagnosed, in treatment or cancer survivors–but the overwhelming majority of women in the group are breast cancer survivors. “I believe it is an indication of how survivable breast cancer is,” Zanoni says.

“Cancer can be one of the most stressful experiences anyone has to face,” she adds. “A support group can help to cope with the emotional aspects of cancer by providing a place to share experiences and learn from others who are facing similar situations.”

Trish Bennett found her lifeline there. Diagnosed with a particularly aggressive type of breast cancer in 2021, the Houghton woman says: “They helped me connect with another woman who had the same type of cancer.  It was really helpful.  I thought I had a death sentence and saw that living was possible. Absolutely any person with a life-changing event should connect with a support group.”

The Women Living with Cancer Support Group has about 25 active members and 45 on their mailing list.

There are many benefits of a cancer support group. Among them: a chance to feel understood, a safe place to help manage the wider range of feelings, fears and sadness that come with a cancer diagnosis, a place to share or learn about resources and tips, an opportunity to learn from others who have been on this journey, a chance to share your experiences with those who have just begun their treatment and healing, and an opportunity to receive information along the journey through speakers from medical personnel and other community resources.

Support group members have learned many things. “If you can accept uncertainty, it allows you to live life every day,” says Anita Quinn, a breast cancer survivor and co-founder of WLCSG.

“It has been a privilege to help coordinate the monthly gathering of the Women Living with Cancer Support Group since its inception over 10 years ago,” Quinn says.  “We have cried with, laughed with, encouraged and supported women in so many different ways, most to the other side of believing you have survived and a few to their departure from this earth.  This group helps to keep priorities straight in my life.  Life is all about making and helping a new friend.”

The support group is also working to help fight the stigma sometimes still attached to cancer. “Cancer in recent years has been so much more discussed in the media,” says Angie Van Tassel, another breast cancer survivor and co-founder of WLCSG. “Now it hopefully results in empathy, not shame, as it may have many years ago.”

The support group’s activities include scheduled monthly programs for health information and sharing, occasional informal breakfasts for light-hearted camaraderie, exercise classes designed for cancer survivors and those in treatment, a Relay for Life Team to support the fight against cancer, making comfort kits to share with fellow cancer patients in treatment, participation at local health fairs and community events to advertise WLCSG, outings for fun or learning a new skill, and an annual Christmas party and other celebratory events.

Local Resources for Breast Cancer Support

• Women Living with Cancer Support Group: contact Mary, 906-360-0886, mmzanoni@mtu.edu; Anita, 906-370-1388; or Angie, 906-369-0261

• UP Health System Cancer Care Center, 906-449-3900, https://www.uphealthsystem.com/cancer-care

• Aspirus Cancer Center: 800-847-4707, https://www.aspirus.org/cancer-care-blood-disorders?utm_source=google&utm_medium=paid+search&utm_campaign=FY24+cancer&utm_content=cancer&campaignid=20325570904&adgroupid=159244103188&adid=663957723783&gclid=CjwKCAjwg4SpBhAKEiwAdyLwvPd2yzfJNGq7UPIoALX0JQ3WaWKuKFrArLqQrLD9JRbWIHddi7CtnhoCvFYQAvD_BwE

Online Resources

• CancerCare.org offers a free, 15-week online support group for people who have completed their breast cancer treatment within the past 18 months. In this group, led by an oncology social worker, people can share their personal experiences, ways of coping and helpful resources. To join the group, a breast cancer survivor must complete an online registration process at https://www.cancercare.org/support_groups/180-breast_cancer_post-treatment_survivorship_support_group

“Having other survivors to talk to, who understand what you are going through, is very helpful,” says one CancerCare support group member. “You can’t always talk to your partner or friends, since their experience of your cancer is different from yours. Putting your anxieties on them is not always fair, but someone else who has been through the same thing gets it.”

• The National Breast Cancer Foundation runs a monthly support group where a facilitator helps cancer survivors engage in open and honest communication during a “caring and sharing” time. Learn more about the foundation’s support group at https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/breast-cancer-support-groups/

The National Cancer Society’s Cancer Survivors Network can be found at https://csn.cancer.org/categories/breast

• Friend for Life Cancer Support Network is a network of cancer survivors and caregivers who provide one-on-one support to others diagnosed with cancer and their loved ones. Learn more at https://www.friend4life.org/


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