The impact of cancer runs deep. Not only does the illness take a toll on the body, but it can also drastically affect a person emotional and social well-being. While support can be found through family and friends, the first-hand experience from fellow cancer patients and survivors can be an incredible resource. The Rainbow Club at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center is a support group for individuals coping with cancer. There, people are given the opportunity to share what’s going on in their lives and get advice from those who have experienced similar situations.
We are happy to share two inspiring stories from Rainbow Club members who took the time to tell us about their journey toward recovery.
Every year, Irene goes to the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center for her annual check-up. Familiar with her history of thyroid issues, her doctor ordered an ultrasound and discovered two tumors. Soon after, Irene met with her ENT and was diagnosed with Stage 2 nose cancer. “I felt terrified. The doctor couldn’t tell me how long I would live and I didn’t know how to communicate with him,” she says. “I also felt resentful. It was all so sudden. I thought, ‘Why me?’”
In the months following her diagnosis, Irene found herself in and out of the hospital for regular examinations and treatments. She received 35 rounds of radiation and seven rounds of chemotherapy. The aggressive treatment plan also meant aggressive side effects. “It was a very painful process on the body,” she says. “My sleep was inconsistent, I had difficulty eating, and my skin became purple. I lost a total of 50 pounds.” But her troubles didn’t just stop there; it spilled out to her social life. “When friends saw me walking down the street, they would turn around and pretend not to see me. They thought it was bad luck.” Irene tells. In many Asian countries, illnesses like cancer are kept as a secret because of the stigma surrounding the subject. Instead of heeding advice from their providers, patients often downplay the seriousness of their condition. Irene felt it was the same case in New York. “Even in America, where people will say it’s very common to have cancer, it’s still hard to face your husband, children, and friends.” While she received support from her family and friends, she still hid any bad news from them. “I felt like there was no need to let the outsiders know what it’s like to have cancer. They don’t understand.”
But the Rainbow Club did understand. A support group for current cancer patients and survivors, it was filled with what Irene calls “insiders.” Together, they shared their mutual experiences, talked through related issues, and vented their frustrations. “I was the first person in the group without breast cancer. I let the group know that it’s important that patients with all different cancers come to the group and support each other,” says Irene. Through countless conversations and group activities, members built camaraderie. They also notice when members stop coming due to the progression of their illness. “We learned to cherish how precious life is,” she says, “and we all appreciate it daily.”
Like many women her age, Idy never had a mammogram before her breast cancer diagnosis. “I believed that breast cancer is only for after age 50, so when my doctor asked me to do a mammogram in 2009, I deferred it.” In 2010, her doctor asked again. This time, she complied. “When the doctor told me I had cancer, I was suspicious,” Idy says. “How could he be so certain when I didn’t even do a biopsy?” Unsure of her future, she put off making a decision and went on her pre-planned vacation in Hong Kong. When Idy returned to New York, she finally got her biopsy and was told that she’ll be undergoing surgery in the same month. The news came as a shock. “No one ever educated me about breast cancer. In the past, people told me that only people with work stress and depression got cancer. I felt I was happy so I shouldn’t have cancer,” she shares.
Following the surgery, Idy still had trouble reconciling with the fact that she had cancer. She isolated herself for nine months. “Whenever someone tried to approach me, I would say I’m fine and that they don’t need to contact me.” By keeping her friends at bay and her husband out of the country, the only social support Idy had was her teenage son. With no peers to discuss her pain, Idy became miserable and often took her frustrations out on her son. “One day I yelled, ‘What would you do if I died of cancer?’” My son burst into tears, and we cried together.”
The next day, Idy stepped out of the darkness and finally accepted her diagnosis. She became involved with multiple social groups for cancer, but there was still a problem. “Patients only talked to other patients or did arts and crafts. It looked good on the surface, but I had trouble opening up.” Then, a friend introduced her to the Rainbow Club. “Because a social worker leads the group, we learned how to de-stress and use effective coping methods. It helped me a lot,” Idy says. “I learned that I had a distorted perception of the people around me and my perspective needed to change.”
Now a member for three years, Idy’s life is back on track. “I appreciate my life and all the people around me.”