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