By Deb Peterson
“A lot of women think they’re doing just fine [after being diagnosed with breast cancer], says Chris Garrison, a volunteer at the Peitz Cancer Support House on the campus of Baxter Regional Medical Center in Mountain Home. “And then a friend encourages them to come to our support group, and they cry and laugh and discover they are not alone.”
Since the group began more than 10 years ago, only a handful of women who have attended haven’t come back. Some members have been in the group 11 years.
“Now we’re the supporters,” says Fran Patrick.
It happens over and over in both the noon and evening breast cancer support groups that meet for an hour twice a month at the community house where all cancer support services are free thanks to generous donations from the community and an endowment from Peter and Jan Peitz. Women reluctantly attend “just one time,” and before they know it, they have new friends, sisters in cancer who understand the special challenges and emotions, the awkwardness and embarrassment they may have been feeling over the new shape of their bodies, the loss of hair, the fatigue.
“Sometimes we just cry together,” Chris says, “but most of the time we laugh, we learn from each other.”
Chris has been in the group for 10 years. The new women who join have the advantage of the latest medical developments and surgical choices, something to share with the rest of the group.
“Breast cancer support groups provide a place for survivors to come together to grieve, encourage, and inspire each other in their fight against a devastating disease,” says Regina Ellis, coordinator at the PCSH. “They become a part of a unique sisterhood that no one wanted to join. Their desire is to make the fight easier for the next survivor. They recognize that survivorship begins the day of diagnosis and that everyone is a champion.”
Regina is aware of only one similar house in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Most support organizations she has located do not have a physical place of their own for survivors to meet. The women are limited to meeting in hospitals, doctor’s offices, or community places such as libraries or restaurants.
“When people from other areas learn about our house they are quite impressed,” says Jan Peitz. “It is standard for hospitals to have a library on the oncology floor and the support system part is missing. Our breast cancer support groups are full of love and laughter.”
“Everyone here has open arms,” says Lana Pate, a 10-year survivor.
“We have a lot of fun,” adds Claudia Keppel, a 9-year survivor.
When Lana and Claudia moved to the Twin Lakes Area from other states, they were both thrilled to find the breast cancer support group at PCSH. Neither had been able to find anything like it where they had been treated. They had felt alone in their journey.
“Here, we found sisters,” Claudia says.
“I can’t explain the connection you feel when you find other breast cancer survivors, when you see a woman wearing a pink ribbon,” Fran says, “but it’s definitely there.”
The women have become such good friends that they often meet outside the formal group for picnics, parties, and cancer walks, which they participate in twice a year.
“I urge survivors (we also have support groups for the family/caregiver) to attend support groups, even if they don’t think they need it,” Jan says. “They can be an inspiration to others. How special it is for everyone to know they can share their concerns in a safe, caring place when they need it the most.”
“Just come,” Claudia says. “You are not by yourself.”
The evening breast cancer support group meets at 6 p.m. the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, with a speaker generally scheduled the second Thursday. For more info about any of the services at PCSH, call 870-508-2273 or visit baxterregional.org.
M! October/November 2013