When The Gathering Place looked into providing support for breast cancer patients, staff wanted to offer something unique.
"There are a lot of general breast cancer support groups," said social worker Susan Marinac. "And they do a great job. So we didn't want to duplicate that, but fill a need that hadn't been met."
That led to the formation of a support group for younger women with breast cancer. "Younger," Marinac explained, means any woman who has not yet reached menopause when she is diagnosed.
The group is a safe place where they can be themselves.
"It can be hard to be open about your feelings with family and friends," Marinac said. "Here, you can say what you need to say without feeling like you have to keep up a brave front. You can talk about how cancer just sucks. But we also have fun and laugh together."
The group meets the the first Tuesday of each month at 6:30 p.m.
Some of the issues tackled in the support group include:
Family. Younger patients may have young children, and have to help them understand what is going on. The Gathering Place offers child care while parents are participating in programs, as well as support groups and art therapy for children of all ages.
Body image. Between surgery scars, maybe losing a breast and losing hair from chemotherapy, younger women can face a bigger shock than older women when dealing with the change in their appearance, Marinac said.
Sexuality and intimacy. Single women wonder how to handle dating. "How many dates before we tell?" is a common question for survivors. Married women or women in relationships have to deal with the changes that cancer brings to that relationship. Then there are the hormonal, physical and emotional issues that arise as chemotherapy can put women into instant menopause. For younger women hoping to have children, it is a cruel blow on top of the cancer.
Money. Younger women have not had much time to build careers or a nest egg. Now they're having to deal with insurance companies, co-pays and other bills.
What now? "We call it 'The New Normal,'" Marinac said. Life changes once you're diagnosed with cancer, she said. You've crossed a line into a new life and there's no going back. And some younger women have barely had a chance to settle into adult life before their diagnosis.
Once treatment is over, Marinac said, some patients have a bit of a meltdown. "I've heard women say, 'I can't believe I'm saying this, but I want another chemo,'" she said. "As long as you're in treatment, you're fighting the disease. Once you've done treatment, how do you fight it?"
Many focus on nutrition and fitness, areas that give them something to control about their health. The Gathering Place has a registered dietician, hands-on cooking classes, exercise classes and massage, reiki and reflexology.
The Gathering Place helps all cancer patients learn about their disease and treatment, with a lending library and librarians who can help them research.
Kris Austin, director of community relations for The Gathering Place, said the library gives patients and their family more solid information than they may find in the deluge of information and opinion online.
All services and programs at The Gathering Place are provided free of charge.