Group gives support to cancer survivors

Agency reinforces hospice concept

Faith Proietti, MA, MDiv, chaplain at Med Central Home Care/Hospice in Mansfield, OH, formed a support group for cancer survivors for a very personal reason: She is surviving the illness herself. In 1995, after undergoing a mastectomy and chemotherapy, she looked around for a support group. The hospital didn’t have one, and its oncology nurses were too busy to start one. Proietti decided to take on the task as part of her hospice work at the hospital.

"One reason I started it and brought it under the hospice umbrella is [that] I realized a lot of people I befriended in my treatment had died," she says."I thought if I could educate people about their cancer, and if they weren’t going to make it, then at least I could make them more aware of hospice."

In the nearly three years since Proietti started the group at her hospital-based hospice, it has succeeded in providing emotional support for cancer survivors and educating the dying about hospice. Fifteen to 25 men and women attend the monthly meetings. Sometimes spouses, children, and other loved ones attend. Because the meetings are held in the hospital chapel, members sometimes attend in wheelchairs with IVs attached.

The group introduces cancer survivors to hospice in a natural way. It’s brought up whenever a member dies or Proietti introduces herself to new members. And the word spreads to the members’ friends and acquaintances. A group member might mention hospice as an option to a friend in the oncology ward when it appears the friend is running out of treatment options, for instance.

Spouses of cancer survivors often attend the hospice’s grief support group after their loved ones die. Members often call Proietti for advice or support because they know she is a hospice chaplain. "I think their attitudes do change about hospice the more they hear about it. I want them to talk with other people who are terminally ill even if they are not."

A focus on living, not dying

Each meeting has a theme. For the anger theme, Proietti asked everyone to bring pillows to punch. Another meeting might be about humor, in which everyone tells a funny story. In December, the group holds a potluck party. The group also organizes a fundraising auction each year to raise money to support members who need help or to buy flowers when members die.

The group features speakers four times a year, and one always involves death, dying, and hospice. Other speakers may include a dietitian, nurse practitioner, or an oncologist. Each speaker helps cancer survivors learn a little bit more about their disease and treatment, enabling them to make better-informed decisions.

Although some members die, including 15 last year, the group focuses on how to live life fully. Members sang holiday carols in December for patients in the hospital’s oncology ward. Members visit each other’s homes if someone needs that kind of support and keep in touch with each other between meetings. "We’re an active group that tries to do more for the community and for each other," Proietti says.

Proietti usually begins each meeting by introducing herself to new members. Everyone sits in a circle. Then she asks members to talk for three minutes about themselves, their cancer, their families, or whatever they choose to discuss. They may choose not to speak, as well. These introductions often create discussions about dealing with a particular treatment, and they enable members to become more comfortable with the fact that cancer is part of their lives, Proietti says.

If it’s a lecture meeting, the speaker talks for the first 40 minutes to an hour. Then Proietti asks the group if anyone has questions or problems they’d like to share with the others. This gives members an opportunity to express their fears and ask for information that might help them make a decision about chemotherapy or surgery. "Then we have a group discussion as a result of that."

Proietti recounts one meeting that typifies the synthesis between this support group for cancer survivors and the hospice program. One of the group’s members, a woman in her 20s, called Proietti three days before a meeting. The woman had been attending for six months and was now dying, and she wanted Proietti’s advice. Proietti visited her that day, telling her, "You have to make a decision. What do you want to do?"

The young woman asked her about hospice, and Proietti recommended that she decide quickly. The woman permitted Proietti to call her physician and ask for a referral.

A few days later, the woman came to the support group and made the announcement that she had joined hospice. "Everyone looked at each other, and we realized as a group that she had come to say goodbye," Proietti recalls.

It stunned the other cancer survivors, and they didn’t know what to say. Proietti asked each member, sitting in a circle, to thank their young companion and tell her what she has meant to them.

"Then I asked her to come into the middle of the circle, and we all gathered together and prayed that God would give her strength on her journey," Proietti says. "There wasn’t a dry eye among us, but it was a moment of transition and pure spirituality and connection."

Proietti says the group’s outpouring of support and prayers gave the woman the strength she needed to go home. She died a week later. "That’s what we provide for each person who has come to the group: strength, courage, and whatever it takes to walk that journey," she says.