Cancer support group brings patients of color together

Kendra Graves | 11/8/2011, 9:07 p.m.
After Jacqueline Harris was diagnosed with cancer, she found some comfort in joining one of Facing Cancer Together’s support groups. Susan Ryan-Vollmar

Just two years after Jacqueline Harris settled into retirement, she was diagnosed with cancer.

Her daughter, siblings and a few close girlfriends have been a welcome support system throughout the treatment process, accompanying her to doctor’s visits, cooking meals and providing encouragement. And while Harris was aware that her cancer experience could cause her to lose hair or weight, she didn’t expect that it would lead to the loss of some friends.

“A few friends have fallen away for different reasons, I think because of fear,” she said. “I think some people, when they look at a friend or a person who has cancer, it forces them to look at their own life and their own death. And it’s hard for some people to deal with.”

For Harris, joining a cancer support group proved to be an important resource as she tried to heal not just physically, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually as well.

At the suggestion of her oncologist, she contacted Facing Cancer Together, a Newton, Mass.-based non-profit that provides support groups, self-care classes, therapy sessions and other safe spaces where people living with or dying from cancer can vent, learn, grieve, share and connect.

“Sometimes family and friends, having not gone through the experience, or just being fearful, they can’t be as helpful as they’d like to be,” said Sasheen Hazel, one of two clinical psychologists who helps facilitate the organization’s new support group targeted to cancer patients of color living in Boston. “When someone close to you has cancer, you’re just as fearful or you’re just as scared or hurt as they are, so you’re not always at your best.”

Harris is one of many cancer patients who seek support outside of their inner circles, from those who can understand their experience best — other cancer patients.

“[The support group] gives me a place where I can go and talk about anything that I want to talk about and where people truly understand what I’m saying and truly listen because they are going through the same thing themselves,” Harris said. “Many times, family members, as supportive as they are and as loving as they are, don’t always want to hear what you might be feeling about your cancer. Being at Facing Cancer Together allows me to talk about how my medication may be affecting me or how I’m feeling about relationships or lack of relationships.”

African Americans like Harris continue to be diagnosed with cancer at higher rates than any other racial or ethnic population in the country. According to the Boston Public Health Commission’s Health of Boston 2010 report, cancer rates among Boston’s black residents are double or triple that of other groups. And yet, finding and sustaining a support group that connects with African Americans remains difficult.

“There really are no community-based cancer support groups for people of color in Boston,” said Nancy Gaulin, one of Facing Cancer Together’s founders and a clinical doctor who’s been providing mental health counseling in and around Boston for seven years.