Cancer And Community

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

I recently asked a group of cancer survivors if anything good emerged from their disease. One woman gestured at the people around the room and said simply, “This.”

She went on, “Everyone here is a new friend.”

I knew what she meant. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996 and found community. At first, I defined that community as men with breast cancer. In the 1990s and before, men with breast cancer often hid their diagnosis because they were embarrassed at having a “woman’s disease.” I was able to connect with other guys with breast cancer only through the Internet.

Over time, my perspective of community began to change. I wanted to be part of the larger breast cancer community and not just the community of men with breast cancer. I began by joining a breast cancer support group. Not surprisingly, all of the other attendees were women. For the most part, the women were welcoming and supportive. I think I was a bit of a curiosity. But I didn’t feel like an outsider – I quickly became part of the local breast cancer community and remain so more than 16 years later.

More recently, I began to define my cancer community even more broadly. People with every type of cancer struggle to make decisions with incomplete information and worry what the future will bring. It doesn’t matter if it’s colon cancer or brain cancer or breast cancer. We’re more alike than different.

Perhaps I feel this way because I live in a relatively rural area in Upstate New York. Cancer survivors here have to find common ground to form and sustain community.

In hindsight, it’s interesting to realize that I’ve defined my own cancer community so differently at different points in time. What’s clear, though, is that community – however defined – is the greatest good that came from my cancer.

I love that cancer brings me in contact with people I wouldn’t have met in any other way. It’s the ultimately equalizer – we’re all scared and looking to connect with others who understand. Black or white, rich or poor, man or woman. We connect in the chemo suites, in the radiation waiting room, and in the supermarket.

When I was first diagnosed, I remember sitting in my oncologist’s waiting room and looking at the people around me. I thought, “Am I one of them?”

I am one of them. And they’re the best people I know.


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.

Click here to see all of Bob’s columns

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