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My Monday Group

Posted 10/25/2013

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  I have been thinking all week about what happened Monday morning. Each week, my group for women with advanced cancer meets, and it is always a special experience. This group has met for almost twenty years, obviously with changing membership. There is one woman, Peggy, who has been a member for 14 or 15 years; she rarely comes as she is doing so well that her focus is elsewhere. We, however, talk of her often and celeberate her experience. Several women in the group work full time so come only occasionally, usually when they can schedule other medical appointments for Mondays. There is a core group of about 8 women who are there as often as possible. Right now, this group includes two women with advanced lung cancer, the rest have advanced breast cancer.

  One longtime beloved member had especially bad news recently, and we were unsure if she would be well enough to join us again. On Monday, with the help of her sister, she was there. It was extraordinary, and I have been feeling the blessings ever since. Here is what Amy said about it:

 It was holy. I've never been in another group where we could alternately cry and laugh--sometimes simultaneously--and feel both joy and the sorrow, gratitude and a profound sense of loss and grief, all at one time. I am so glad I got to experience that. Grit and grace.

  And here is what one woman wrote for last year's Book of Writings at Celebration of Life about the group:

It takes me a moment to place her. You know how it is when you see a face you recognize, but you’re not sure from where. Then it hits me: Joanne, from my Monday group. I’ve not seen Joanne outside of Hester’s office, or without that green plaid scarf turned round like a turban on her head. Today she sports a cap, a fitted cap. The plaid scarf dangles out of her purse, a thin book on top. I try to make out the title, but between the text size and the distance, it’s too difficult to read, and like everything else that is too difficult to deal with, I move on.

Joanne hasn’t noticed me yet, so I use the brief reprise from social obligation to indulge in the colors and textures she has adorned herself in today, starting with the soft blue cap on her head. Fuzzy fibers halo the crown – mohair or angora? Fibers that, anywhere else, would smell fresh like baby powder. But nothing smells fresh here, Shapiro 9 Oncology Waiting Area # 1. The deep breaths we take for stethoscopes and exams fill our lungs with a mixture of rubbing alcohol and anxiety. Smells of life are elsewhere, on another floor, another building, another story all together.

Shapiro 9 has two large waiting areas and two large treatment areas, a warren of offices, exam rooms, rooms with “caution” signs on the doors or “authorized personnel only,” and a modest gift shop near the bank of elevators that sells wigs and hats and jewelry just in case your chemotherapy requires a booster of retail therapy.

Tucked in a far corner of the sprawling Oncology Hematology floor is Hester’s office. The plaques on Hester’s wall are testament to her accomplishments, the books she’s authored scattered on side tables. But nothing inside or outside her office signals the depths of Hester’s gifts as a healer. She isn’t a doctor, though she’s married to one. She can’t cure cancer, nor does she know what might. But, she does make it easier to deal with, and that is very important to me and to all the other women she counsels.

On Tuesdays Hester holds court for “women newly diagnosed.” I spent many Tuesdays in her office with similarly afflicted woman until a couple of years ago when I graduated to Monday’s group.

Monday’s group is reserved for the pale castaways, “women living with advanced disease.” Hester is a master of compassion and, in her Dojo, we can prepare ourselves for battle: the scans, the next treatment, the loss of desire, the loss of hair, the loss of other members of the group.

Loss has been a common theme except where my weight is concerned. I might be able to forget I have cancer, but not the ten pounds I gained in treatment. I despise scales, especially hospital scales. I walk past them as quickly as possible on my way to the Monday group.

If you can answer “yes” to living with advanced disease, or metastatic disease, or stage IV cancer you are welcome to join. No need to knock, no initiation fee, just drop by between 11:30 and 1p. The size of our group varies, attendance is never taken, and no one is tardy. We arrive in dribs and drabs for a round robin of sharing, each of us taking a turn discussing the highs and lows of life on loan. We let rip whatever comes to mind; mundane or morose, everything is fair game. We are a secret society of seriously ill sisters.

Paula’s hair is tousled just enough to look real. And, after a decade on Taxol, her smile has not diminished and her skin still signals rigorous exercise. These are my beacons of hope, the women living for decades. Statistics are irrelevant, we’ve already beaten the odds. But the abyss is close by: Laura stopped being coherent shortly after brain metastases captured what was left of her grey matter. The following week she was in hospice, a week later she passed.

There is no group today. I am on the 9th floor waiting for my blood tests and weekly chemo infusion. Joanne must be doing the same. I speak up; tell her that I like her fuzzy cap. We chat and smile like two people anywhere. She complains that she is cold and pulls the plaid scarf from her purse. Her paperback falls to the floor. I pick it up, see the title now, and say nothing, handing the book back to her. “Becoming Friends with Death.” Maybe she’ll want to discuss it at next Monday’s group. I don’t want to touch the book, or the topic. Someone calls my name.  I cringe, it’s time for vital signs. Have I told you how much I hate getting weighed?


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