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By Bob Riter

Cancer and Community

Connecting with other survivors brings friendship and strength

By Bob Riter

I recently asked a group of cancer survivors if anything good emerged from their disease.

Cancer community graphicOne woman gestured at the people around the room and said simply, “This.” She continued, “Everyone here is a new friend.”

I knew what she meant.

After being diagnosed with stage IIA breast cancer in 1996, I found a community among survivors. At first, I defined that community as men with breast cancer. Because we’re relatively few and far between, I reached out through the internet to find other men with breast cancer. That’s how I connected with Bob Stafford from Teegarden, Ind., who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988.

In the past, men with breast cancer have often hidden their diagnosis because of embarrassment at having a “woman’s disease.” But from the beginning, Bob was open about his breast cancer and made a point of actively reaching out to newly diagnosed guys like me to help us overcome our isolation and make us feel part of a community.

Over the last 13 years, however, I’ve been surprised to find that my community has expanded.

The first change occurred in 1997 when I joined a breast cancer support group after deciding that I wanted to be part of the larger breast cancer community and not just the community of men with breast cancer. 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. This was nothing new for me because while growing up in the 1960s I was one of few Jews in West Virginia. In my new breast cancer group, I was again the menorah in a land of Christmas trees. But I didn’t feel like an outsider—I quickly became part of the local breast cancer community and remain so more than 13 years later.

More recently, I have broadened the definition of my cancer community even further to include women and men with all different types of cancer. This may be, in part, 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. After all, it doesn’t matter if it’s colon cancer, brain cancer or breast cancer. People with every type of cancer struggle to make decisions with incomplete information, and worry what the future will bring. And that means we are more alike than different.

In hindsight, it’s interesting to realize that I’ve identified my own cancer community so differently at various 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 ultimate equalizer: We’re all scared and looking to connect with others who understand. Whether you’re black or white, rich or poor, man or woman—we connect with one another 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.

Bob Riter is the associate director of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes in Ithaca, N.Y.


(image: Studio 515)