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When Getting a Cancer Diagnosis Feels Like Joining a 'Club' No One Wants to Join


One thing I’ve said often since my September 2017 surgery and diagnosis is, “I’ve joined ‘The Club No One Wants To Join.’” Understandably there’s plenty of myth and downright horror about this “club.”

“Oh I could never do what you’re doing.”

“I’d be terrified.”

“That’s awful.”

Early on, my nephew texted me, “We heard about your tragic situation.”

However, I viewed things differently. Almost effortlessly, I began from a place of incredible gratitude: being “led” to our marvelous surgeon at Compass Oncology (and darn fast); having insurance; knowing I was supported by friends, family, neighbors and my 12-step peers. You see, I firmly believe that more than two decades of participation in a 12-step program has been an indispensable foundation for my cancer treatment and recovery.

In the rooms, there are more similarities than differences. Twelve step recovery suggests looking for these, to feel that essential belonging. And cancer doesn’t discriminate — the chemo lounge is filled with very different people in the same boat. A new person discovers, if they are willing, that the others are on a path that is manageable and well-traveled, even if it’s never easy or the same for everyone.

There’s probably no phrase more widely associated with recovery programs than “one day at a time,” but it can be useful to remind anyone about staying in the moment and taking care of the next right thing. Cancer and chemo treatment are certainly all about that!

“Today, I am going to a party that makes me happy.”

“Today, I know I need to rest.”

If I can break it down to that chunk, just today, I know I can handle it, take care of myself and live well.

We 12-step people often spot one another pretty reliably out in the world — maybe by hearing a certain few words or noticing tokens, like a key ring or coin, on display. So it is in the other “club,” often notably by style choices related to hair! This “club” has tokens too. Who knew there were so many bumper stickers, bracelets, mugs and T-shirts available, in rainbow colors, boldly indicating an affiliation with others. “I’m here too!”

In the chemo lounge, as in the meeting rooms, I might never know someone’s full name, yet we share joys and strengths. On my final chemo day, a woman whom I’d never seen before had brought a beautiful bouquet of multi-hued roses to delight everyone. She invited me to take a rose for myself, and one for my mother who died of cancer in 1982. I thanked her and learned her name is Cheryl. I may never see her again, but I’ll never forget her kindness.

In a 12-step recovery, most people celebrate time. Some count days, some months and years. At these milestones, other recovering friends celebrate the occasion with cards, cakes and coins as they see fit. There are traditions in chemo rooms too — mine has a selection of crowns to wear all day, and a loud bell to clang joyously while other folks on the journey clap and cheer. The point is to show that it’s working. That there’s another day coming.

Needing a 12-step program or cancer treatment sounds to many people like the worst thing on earth until it happens. The circumstances leading up to the moment one “joins” may be precipitated by a crisis. Or a sinking, grim realization that something is terribly wrong. And at last, surrendering and getting help is the best, perhaps the only, option.

As I’ve gone along, healing from my hysterectomy and having an IP port placed for treatment, starting chemo – and now just finished – I’ve developed more and more realization that I am a member of two clubs “no one wants to join,” and both are enriching and expanding my life, not the opposite.

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Unsplash photo via Thomas Hafeneth