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In Search of Support

Network, Spring/Summer 2006

Coming face to face with a life-threatening illness is a transformative challenge. With diagnosis comes shock and an ongoing process of accommodation to the illness itself, to the medical interventions that may accompany it, and to a new view of self and future. Throughout this process, people often look to family, friends and beyond for comfort and support. Social support is good for your health. But it’s not always simple.

Rosalyn Broughm has spent the past year adjusting to the realities of living with type 1 diabetes. While she is first to acknowledge the emotional support provided by her husband — “He was there for me. He was very supportive. He tried to make sure I was never alone. He did everything he knew how to do to help me” — she discovered there were limits to the type of support possible from friends and family. They did not share her type 1 diagnosis — they lacked an intimate experience of the illness.

Susan Holder agrees. “With close friends and others,” she observes, “people are unable to understand what it’s really like.” Susan has cancer and underwent a series of chemotherapy sessions last year. She was struck by the effects the illness had on her personal relationships. “Of course, family and friends are very important,” she says. “But there are highs and lows. People who are uncomfortable with not knowing what to say, say nothing — as opposed to admitting that they’re uncomfortable.”

Like others with a diagnosis of serious illness, Susan wrestled with her own feelings of discomfort around acknowledging her condition. “When I was going for a massage, I had to fill out the ‘tick the box’ section on the release form. And of course, cancer was there and I didn’t tick it. And my daughter who was with me said, ‘You’ve got to tick the cancer box!’ And you just don’t want to be in that box.”

Pat Brown is a program manager at Wellspring, a network of support centres in southern Ontario for people affected by cancer. She’s well aware of the stigma that exists. “Even though cancer’s becoming much more prevalent in the news, there still are people who have a hard time talking about it.” Parents will ask, “‘When do I tell my kids? Or do I tell my kids?’ So it’s not just about talking in the community, it’s about talking at home.”

Beyond friends and family, the power of care providers and their medical settings to provide psychological support should not be underestimated. “The cancer centre does a fantastic job of making you feel comfortable, physically and emotionally,” says Susan. Rosalyn says of her endocrinologist, “She is just amazing. She cares, she listens, she gets right to the point and she’s given me all kinds of advice that’s helped me manage my diabetes… She’s done a lot of things that have affected me mentally, that have brought my stress levels way down.”

Rosalyn also participates in a peer support group for people with type 1 diabetes, and she can’t say enough good things about it. “We’re only two or three people, but you leave there feeling so much better you just have to come back. It’s not just about information, but it’s the fact that we understand each other and you can actually talk to somebody who doesn’t minimize your problem. This group is a lifeline. I wouldn’t want to be without it.”

The bond of common experience is a powerful one. Pat Brown sees it every day at Wellspring. “People can come here and know there are others who understand where they’re at. You don’t have to have exactly the same kind of cancer, or have been in the identical spot, but at least there’s a comfort factor that allows you to say,  ‘Okay, I’m making that first big step to taking care of me.’”

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