Tick­led pink

Breast can­cer sup­port groups pro­vide more than just emo­tional sup­port; they are also a source of a jolly good time for their mem­bers.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - WOMAN - By SHARMILLA GANE­SAN star2@thes­tar.com.my

THE poet Lord By­ron once said: “Al­ways laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.” Sim­ple words these may be, but they high­light a po­tent truth: that of­ten, hav­ing fun and en­joy­ing one­self go a long way to­wards help­ing one to cope with a med­i­cal con­di­tion.

For the many women di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer, join­ing a sup­port group can pro­vide more than just coun­selling – it can also be a source of much-needed fun and laugh­ter. Many breast can­cer sup­port groups, usu­ally made up of sur­vivors and those cur­rently un­der­go­ing treat­ment, make it a point to or­gan­ise ac­tiv­i­ties for their mem­bers in or­der to cre­ate a re­laxed environment where the women can feel com­fort­able shar­ing their feel­ings.

“When we get to­gether, it’s like be­ing schoolkids again!” says Lena Ab­dul­lah, pres­i­dent of Pink Unity (un­der the National Can­cer So­ci­ety of Malaysia), a women’s can­cer sup­port group where 75% of its mem­bers have been di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer. “We’re a happy group and ev­ery­one is so pos­i­tive be­cause we re­alise that we are all go­ing through this to­gether.”

The ac­tiv­i­ties or­gan­ised by the var­i­ous groups run the gamut – from crafts ses­sions and cook­ing classes to line-danc­ing and trips. The key, it seems, is not so much the event it­self, but rather, the op­por­tu­nity it of­fers for these women to get to­gether and cre­ate a bond.

For Ma­zlinda Mohd Yunus, 42, the line-danc­ing classes and per­for­mances she par­tic­i­pates in as a mem­ber of Pink Unity have been in­valu­able to­wards help­ing her de­velop a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude about her con­di­tion.

“Be­ing a part of a group like this shows oth­ers, and even our­selves, that we are nor­mal peo­ple. Only we can un­der­stand and re­late to what each other is go­ing through. Our care­givers can of course sym­pa­thise with us, but only we can em­pathise,” says Ma­zlinda, who is cur­rently still un­der­go­ing treat­ment for breast can­cer.

One of the more off-the-wall ac­tiv­i­ties or­gan­ised by breast can­cer sup­port groups would have to be the Pink Chal­lengers, a dragon boat race team by the Breast Can­cer Wel­fare As­so­ci­a­tion Malaysia (BCWA) based in Petaling Jaya, Se­lan­gor.

Dragon boat rac­ing for breast can­cer sur­vivors is an in­ter­na­tional move­ment that be­gan in 1996, thanks to re­search by Cana­dian sports medicine physi­cian Dr Don C. McKen­zie. His stud­ies showed that dragon boat­ing pro­vided breast can­cer sur­vivors with up­per body ex­er­cise that was safe and re­duced the in­ci­dence of lym­phoedema on the arms (swelling due to re­moval of lymph nodes dur­ing surgery). Cur­rently, there about 110 breast can­cer sur­vivors’ dragon boat teams world­wide.

BCWA’s in­ter­est in start­ing their own team was piqued when they at­tended the Pe­nang In­ter­na­tional Dragon Boat Fes­ti­val in 2005, where they saw sev­eral teams of sur­vivors from abroad. The Pink Chal­lengers team was formed then, and has been reg­u­larly tak­ing part in dragon boat com­pe­ti­tions since – most re­cently, the team placed third at last year’s Var­sity Boat Race held in Putrajaya.

“When we watched them, we were hooked!” says Mar­garet Gabriel, 53, a pad­dler with the Pink Chal­lengers. “It was to­tally new to most of us, and it can be very dif­fi­cult, but it is so much fun!”

The Chal­lengers, who will be tak­ing part in the In­ter­na­tional Dragon Boat Fes­ti­val Can­cer Sur­vivors World Cup 2011 this week, usu­ally train twice a week for about two months be­fore a com­pe­ti­tion. At other times, train­ing is about once a fort­night.

Gabriel says that be­sides the phys­i­cal ben­e­fits, be­ing in the dragon boat team gives them a great amount of emo­tional sup­port.

“You have to be in the team to feel the cam­er­aderie and team spirit that we have. It takes our mind off our con­di­tion and shows us that we can live nor­mal lives, too,” she ex­plains.

Giv­ing those af­flicted with breast can­cer some sem­blance of a nor­mal life is the aim of most of these ef­forts, such as Pink Unity’s makeup and beauty ses­sions.

“Hav­ing can­cer is not a pun­ish­ment; you should let your­self have as much fun as you can. It’s about be­ing pos­i­tive,” says Lena, 50, who is a lym­phoma sur­vivor.

She says Pink Unity has or­gan­ised sev­eral makeup ses­sions, some of which are sim­ply “girly” ses­sions where the mem­bers get to­gether and give each other makeovers, us­ing spon­sored prod­ucts and cos­met­ics. There are also ses­sions where pro­fes­sional makeup artists teach the women how to cover up bruises or skin prob­lems that oc­cur as a side ef­fect to treat­ment. They are also given wigs to try on. They even do “glam­our” ses­sions in which all the women get dolled up and have their por­trait shots taken by a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher who is also a mem­ber of Pink Unity.

“We laugh and joke and poke fun at each other! Some­times it’s not pos­si­ble to have this much fun at home, be­cause ev­ery­one is so con­cerned about our con­di­tion. But here, among oth­ers who are in the same boat, we have so much fun,” says Lena.

Breast Can­cer Sup­port Group Jo­hor Baru (BCSGJB) pres­i­dent Doris Boo, 58, agrees, say­ing that a per­son with can­cer shouldn’t re­strict her­self un­nec­es­sar­ily.

“We shouldn’t think too much about the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’, be­cause life be­comes very un­happy. I don’t think of my­self as sick, and many of us are do­ing things now, as a part of the sup­port group, that we wouldn’t be do­ing other­wise,” she says.

BCSGJB fo­cuses on pro­vid­ing phys­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties for its mem­bers, chiefly walk­ing, hik­ing and hill­climb­ing.

“We share a lot of laugh­ter while do­ing these to­gether, and of course, well­ness comes with ex­er­cise. For many of us who un­dergo chemo­ther­apy, we have prob­lems sleep­ing. So we en­cour­age our mem­bers to go for morn­ing walks. We also try to or­gan­ise a hill-climb­ing ses­sion ev­ery month or so. Our favourite is Gu­nung Pu­lai, as it is the near­est,” Boo ex­plains.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, the group or­gan­ises trips to hills fur­ther away too, which be­comes a hol­i­day of sorts for the par­tic­i­pants. Most no­tably, about 30 mem­bers – com­pris­ing sur­vivors and vol­un­teers – climbed Mount Kinabalu in 2009.

Ac­cord­ing to Boo, the par­tic­i­pants were split into three groups based on their ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Re­cur­ring pa­tients and those presently un­der­go­ing treat­ment stayed at the moun­tain’s base camp, while a sec­ond group made it to the first stop. The third group made it to La­ban Rata, and at­tempted to scale the peak, but had to stop due to strong winds. Not to be de­terred, 10 of the mem­bers tried again last year and two breast can­cer sur­vivors man­aged to reach the peak of Mount Kinabalu.

At the core of all the groups’ ac­tiv­i­ties is to re­move the neg­a­tiv­ity sur­round­ing the bat­tle with breast can­cer.

“Many peo­ple be­come very de­pressed when they are di­ag­nosed,” Ma­zlinda says. “Many of our mem­bers, when they first come to our ses­sions, are very neg­a­tive. Even I my­self was like that. But when you are here, and ev­ery­one is laugh­ing and en­joy­ing them­selves to­gether, you re­alise that you can find the pos­i­tiv­ity within your­self.” n For more in­for­ma­tion, go to Pink Unity’s Face­book page at http://on.fb.me/nGLHuP, the Breast Can­cer Wel­fare As­so­ci­a­tion Malaysia web­site at www.breast­cancer.org.my, or the Breast Can­cer Sup­port Group Jo­hor Baru web­site at www.bcsgjb.org/.

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