Ask a Survivor — Canceled for the Foreseeable Future

“Because of concerns regarding Coronavirus, immunocompromised patients, and possible exposure, the hospital has put a temporary hold on all non-essential, in-person meetings or groups. Which means that, for the next few weeks, at least, this group won’t meet.” This is Barb, the nurse/social worker who runs my cancer support group, announcing the temporary demise of the support group. She assures us that the hospital fully intends to get things up and running again, ASAP, in coordination with the CDC and health professional guidelines.

This is usually the group I kind of hear the most questions from, and then turn into this column, but what happened today is a uniquely teachable moment; because there are no real questions asked. The remainder of our time is largely spent plotting and scheming on how to keep the group going without official support and structure. At the moment, everyone intends to do it via e-mail and social media, until better ideas prevail, and/or the hospital develops an air-tight contagion-free zone or something. I don’t think anyone’s really holding their breath on the second option in the foreseeable future; you rapidly lose faith in the system when that system so utterly fails you as it tends to fail cancer survivors. Not that this is the end of this group — a majority of us have outlived our life expectancy, and if something like a terminal diagnosis isn’t going to keep us from breathing; some pissant virus isn’t going to keep us from getting together at semi-regular intervals (bearing in mind that we’ll almost certainly wash hands, avoid public places, and all the other fairly common-sense, easy precautions most people are advising). It’s easy to portray long-term cancer survivors as the plucky, can-do underdogs in film and TV, but, based on personal experience, that’s mostly because we absolutely are. There are a lot of misguided interpretations of this that lead to that annoyingly inaccurate “positive, cheerful, peaceful” survivor trope. The truth is, we just refused to die. “Stubborn” is a surprisingly common characteristic I’ve seen amongst survivors.

So, yeah, we’ve been temporarily cancelled due to health and safety concerns — which is fair; most of us are immunocompromised. We’re going to keep this thing going. Bet on that one; we didn’t overcome the reaper just to stay inside and not interact with people. And I don’t mean that in a “cutting off your nose to spite your face” sense (before everyone hoping for a guest spot on Adam Ruins Everything lines up to inform me of this being misguided, see that bit about us being long-term survivors, and probably having some effective strategies)(hell, it’s likely a few of us outlived the swine flu of 2009 without a functioning immune system). I blogged about it when I was in treatment, but I had the awesome experience (I mean that in both the Old Testament sense and the SoCal slang sense) of people from my distant past showing up and wishing me well. And, yeah, there was a sense of It’s a Wonderful Life — that you’re more important and loved than you think — about it, but, at the same time, it makes you feel far less isolated. It feels like these are your dear friends who have come to cheer themselves hoarse for you in your finest (possibly final) hour. And once you do experience that, you really do want to pass it on.

Yeah, the vast majority of support groups is us griping about the disease, treatment, etc. and asking various questions about both, but the subtext of every cancer support group — the bedrock that makes it possible to build skyscrapers of hope upon — is “Yeah, this sucks and it’s hellish; make no mistake. We did it, and so can you, make no mistake about that, either.” I don’t know what the future of this group looks like — I’d venture a field trip to a dispensary isn’t out of the realm of possibility — but we didn’t survive one of the deadliest groups of diseases only to fall apart from a lack of group organization or cohesion. Updates to follow.

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Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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