Sharon's Story

“Go to a support group? – You’ve got to be kidding!” I thought. But a little voice inside me reminded me that amongst the vast pile of literature I had read since being thrust on the cancer trail there were a number of studies that showed that “cancer recoverers” who attended a support group had a better outcome – on average – than those who didn’t, So… having braved the surgeon’s knife and begun the awful roundabout of chemo – head-in-toilet bowl-feeling-dreadful-for- weeks – just-starting to-feel-human- when bam! Chemo again – head-in- toiletbowl-feeling-dreadful… ad nauseum (excuse the pun)… I thought, well, I’m prepared to try anything.  

Somewhere amongst all my reading, I had seen a reference to Life Force – a cancer support group with meetings in Annandale… a mere 10-minute drive from my home, so… no excuse not to go.

Headed out for my first group meeting (still feeling conspicuous in my scarf and hair-free head) …parked, watched people go into the building… strong urge to head back home (surely I must have left something on… unlocked… untidy…).

I somehow plucked up the courage to venture in. Bit scary, that first entrance! Relieved once I was seated and could just melt into the group and listen to others talk. Reassured to hear others who were relative newcomers, and inspired by
those who were obviously many years down the track.  

By tea break, when we had the chance to chat one-to-one while we jostled for bikkies and teabags in the kitchen (looking desperately for a teabag with tea in it, not fruit peelings and “pip things” – my pre-herbal days!), the nerves had settled and I had a feeling that maybe, just maybe, I would be back the next week…

And so, I discovered Life Force – and the wonderful “life force” that is Jilly Pascoe. I met some of the most inspiring, funny and courageous human beings I have ever had the privilege to know. I attended regular meetings throughout my
6 months of chemo and beyond and during that time also attended a fun-packed weekend retreat in the country. The mix of people in the group changed over time, with an astonishing variety of personalities, backgrounds and work and
family situations. I was surprised and delighted to meet up with an amazing young woman from my uni Zoology course (hi there, Lizzie!). There were individuals I particularly connected with and others I didn’t. But I came to respect them all and learned something from each one’s story.

And then one day I stopped going – everyday life just took over again. Now, nearly eight years down the track, I no longer attend weekly meetings, but I am thrilled to catch up with old friends from the groups at Christmas get-togethers
and fundraising events, such as the wonderful poetry reading nights at The Wharf.

So what is it about the words “support group” that made me hesitate about entering the Neighbourhood Centre in Annandale all those years ago?  

For me, cancer had been such a disempowering experience… from the time of my diagnosis, it felt like I lost control over so much of my life… I felt like a pawn manipulated by other forces (doctors, nurses, drugs, pain, nausea…)

Looking back, I think I dreaded being sucked into another “organisation” that would force me to undergo procedures that were uncomfortable or painful and where I had to conform to what others decided was best for me. What I found at Life Force was a community of people who shared similar experiences and an arena in which each of us was encouraged and supported to take back control of our lives.

I learned that there is no right way, or one way, to deal with the experience of cancer… there are no should or should nots – whatever emotions you feel are valid… whatever things work for you are ok. I also learned about a range of
things that may help – activities (eg. meditation, massage), information (eg books, tapes), foods and supplements (yes, I even came to appreciate herbal tea!) – and I felt free to tap into those things if and when I chose. Most importantly, I
learned that we each negotiate our own course and for most of us the way is made easier by sharing our experiences with others. We are sometimes “the leaner” or the learner and sometimes “the leaned on” or the teacher. By being
encouraged and permitted to play both roles, I regained my sense of self, my sense of being in charge of my own life again.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the skill and dedication of the group facilitator Jilly. I am convinced that the success of any support- group lies in the hands of the facilitator – someone who is sensitive to underlying fears and feelings, who can balance the (sometimes competing) needs of participants, who can inspire and encourage (ie. provide courage to) the more timid or despairing, and who can ensure it remains a safe and rewarding place for all. All of this with love, compassion and a terrific sense of humour! 

Thank you, Jilly! Thank you, Life Force!

Sharon Flanagan