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MD Anderson offers variety of support groups to help patients cope

June 11, 2018 GMT

Sandra Bishnoi has been diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer for the last seven and a half years, and she finds comfort in meeting with a support group at MD Anderson Cancer Center for people with advanced cancer like her.

“There is no real cure. It is hard to get a diagnosis like that, and I had a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old at the time,” Bishnoi, said.

Bishnoi, living near Chicago at the time of the initial diagnosis, reached out to a support group for women with breast cancer, but she soon realized that she did not have much in common with the women.

Bishnoi noted that she is not trying to belittle those with stage 1 breast cancer, but that the reality for them and for her is a big difference.

“They are just hoping to get back to their normal selves. For me I am trying to survive to see my children grow,” Bishnoi said.

At the time, she was also volunteering with the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network. Part of her volunteer effort was to call all of the local hospitals to identify where stage 4 support groups were in the area. She found that there weren’t many at all.

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Bishnoi’s husband’s job eventually took them to Houston. They settled in West University Place, and she started going to MD Anderson Cancer Center.

MD Anderson did not have an advanced stage cancer group either. Bishnoi spoke to her social worker at MD Anderson about the possibility of starting a new group. Five and a half years ago, the group was put into reality.

“We have a pretty wide variety of groups, where there is need,” said Wendy Griffith, LCSW, senior social work counselor at MD Anderson. “The benefit is the connection you get. Meeting someone who can relate to what you are going through is invaluable.”

Some of the current support groups at MD Anderson include Care 4 Caregivers, Young Adult Support Group, and Well-Wives, for any woman whose husband has cancer. There are also groups for different types of cancer too. The groups meet at nine different locations around the greater Houston area.

“Most support groups are inspired by storytelling. They are talking about what they are going through. The people share experiences with guidance from facilitators. We also have educational speakers to talk about topics that are relevant to the groups,” Griffith said.

Bishnoi noted that in an advanced cancer support group, everyone is always on some kind of treatment, so everyone can compare field notes.

“How did this drug effect you? How did you deal with the weight gain and the depression that comes along? There are so many resources to get from people who have been down this road,” Bishnoi said.

As helpful as it has been, Bishnoi also said that you have to be prepared to develop relationships and then lose those friends when they pass on.

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“It is a fantastic resource but I have lost so many friends that have been on this journey with me. I actually had to take a year off from going to the support group because I was mourning the loss of those people,” Bishnoi said.

Bishnoi’s family has also participated in CLIMB, (Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery) which is a six week program at MD Anderson that is dedicated to the emotional support of children who have parents with cancer.

Bishnoi noted that her children always knew about her diagnosis, but being as young as they were, they did not necessarily understand what it meant.

Bishnoi remembers a time when her son pulled off her hat and commented that “Mommy got a new hair cut” when he saw that she was bald. As they got older though, it became clear that it was starting to impact them.

“The last year I have been very sick. And it’s been scary,” Bishnoi said.

CLIMB allows parents to meet to discuss what their kids are learning, how their cancer is affecting them and how to talk to their kids about cancer.

“You’re worried about what you are going through, but you are also worried about how your children will react to your passing. It was a sobering experience. There were seven other families that went through it,” Bishnoi said.

Griffith encourages anyone who might benefit from it to attend a support group, noting that a lot of people are intimidated at first.

“I think getting there is half the battle,” Giffith said. “There is a lot of pressure to go and spill your heart out, but a lot of people just listen and observe. Cancer can be isolating, so it is helpful to know they are not alone.”

“When you feel that you don’t have enough resources to understand your disease, emotionally or physically, it is a great place to go and experience it through other people’s eyes and I think it gives you a renewed perspective on what you are going through,” Bishnoi said.

For more information and for a full list of cancer support groups, visit www.mdanderson.com/supportgroups.

rebecca.hazen@chron.com