By APRIL CORBIN
When she was diagnosed with advanced-stage breast cancer a decade ago, Mary Eleanor Gerbasich attended a support group for women with dealing with the illness. It didnâ€™t go well.
She found herself surrounded by women whoâ€™d been diagnosed early, women whose cancer hadnâ€™t yet spread to other parts of their bodies like hers had, women for whom â€œhopeâ€ meant successful treatment, rather than long-term management. Rather than feeling supported, she only felt more alone.
â€œI had a really bad experience,â€ Gerbasich recalls. â€œThey didnâ€™t have anything in common with me. They were going to go through this and be done with it. Cancer would be a bump in the road for them. That wasnâ€™t going to be the case for me.â€
Not surprisingly, Gerbasich didnâ€™t stick with the support group. She managed on her own with the love and support of her family and friends for eight years until she finally decided to try again. This time around, there was a local support group created specifically for women like her.
Itâ€™s called Living Beyond. Now in its ninth year, itâ€™s a free support group provided by Baptist Health Louisville, Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Gildaâ€™s Club for women with recurrent or metastatic breast cancer.
â€œWhat (people in general breast cancer support groups) were seeing was that they would have members who would show up, then get diagnosed with metastatic cancer and either not come back or not share, maybe because they didnâ€™t want to scare the other women,â€ JoAnne Morris says. Morris is a chaplain at Baptist Health and licensed marriage and family therapist, who acts as one of the two facilitators for the group. â€œThey needed the most support, but were the most isolated.â€
And so Living Beyond was created. That was nine years ago.
â€œThe group is about women trying to live beyond their terminal illness,â€ Morris continues. â€œItâ€™s in their lives everyday, yes, but how do they do what they need to do everyday? They want to live.â€
Gerbasich knows that firsthand.
â€œWhen you have stage four, you have to keep going,â€ she says. â€œLife keeps going. Living Beyond is good support for anybody whoâ€™s going through it. It can be informative. It prepares you as well. You can see what other people are going through.â€
Perhaps equally as important, the women get to help other women.
â€œI think thatâ€™s a major thing,â€ Gerbasich says. â€œI was a great inspiration to people.â€
She remembers one particular member, Tricia Noll, being â€œalmost frozen petrifiedâ€ during her first meeting: â€œHer seeing me, it lifted a weight off her. It was like, â€˜Youâ€™ve lived 10 years with this. Okay. I can do this.â€™ That was good. We give hope to each other.â€
Noll acknowledges the significance Living Beyond has had in her life since she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer just about a year and a half ago.
â€œYou can share your thoughts with people who are going through the same thing,â€ Noll says. â€œYou donâ€™t have to filter anything that they might not understand, or anything that might scare them. When you share your experience, it makes it easier to cope with.â€
â€œYou canâ€™t really say everything you want to your family,â€ she says. â€œThey are there to support you, but not really outwardly. I find that as long as I can keep going, that provides good opportunity of denial for them. So, I just really needed to be able to share what I was feeling.â€
In addition to having the chance to share their experiences and feelings twice-monthly, Morris says Living Beyond is also able to provide helpful information for women, especially about end-of-life care and wishes.
â€œThis comes up more than I thought it would,â€ Morris says. â€œThey want to know that when they die, they have some control in that. They want to know how to communicate what they want and what their options are. Sometimes women want to sit down and plan it out.â€
These can be heavy conversations, but Living Beyond balances them out with plenty of social activities meant to take womenâ€™s minds off cancer altogether and a healthy dose of small talk about the average annoyances in their lives.
â€œThey can talk about their grocery list and funeral planning and nobody thinks anything of it here,â€ Morris says. â€œPeople have real talks, not just surface-level stuff. Then, they can plan a dinner at Havana Rumba.â€
Noll believes that camaraderie is one of the best benefits to attending the group, adding, â€œWe laugh a lot. And we cry. But thereâ€™s probably more laughing than crying.â€