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November 3, 2000
Group Efforts: Wellness Is a Matter of Support
By Carolyn Martone

illustration: Skipper Chong Warson

Rapheala was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer at the age of 44. The junior high school teacher, wife, and mother had two tumors that had spread throughout her lymph nodes. The spreading cancer resulted in a double mastectomy followed by six months of chemotherapy. Rapheala's prognosis was less than hopeful; doctors grimly expected her to have a recurrence within one year. With such a bleak future awaiting her, Rapheala began searching for another means of healing that would treat more than just her spreading cancer. She needed spiritual help to get through the experience. She found the help she needed in a "wellness group," a type of support group that is quickly becoming a national trend.

In recent years, the work of Bill Moyers, Bernie Siegal, M.D., Caroline Myss, Ph.D., and Andrew Weil, M.D., has been at the forefront of the "wellness movement" exemplified most famously by Gilda's Club, which began in New York City in 1995. Named for the late comedienne Gilda Radner, who died of cancer, the club provides free emotional support to people with cancer and their families. To date there are 19 nationwide affiliates, as well as centers in Canada and London.

Rapheala sought help from a group based strongly in the wellness philosophy espoused by Father Jonathan Pember, a Catholic priest with advanced degrees in teaching and psychology. When one of his close colleagues was diagnosed with cancer, Pember decided to complete the mind/body medical clinic at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston. Using the knowledge he gained there, Pember began a unique wellness group in a small town in upstate New York.

Seventeen years and hundreds of members later, Pember has not only experienced the power of group support but also adamantly believes in the power of the human spirit in overcoming disease. "For a long time, traditional Western medicine has held to a dichotomy of the body and mind in treating pain in physical illness," Pember explains. "As a result, people are brought up to have their illness treated somewhat like the mechanical breakdown of an automobile. This ignores the perplexities of humanity."

Members of Pember's wellness group have been diagnosed not just with cancer, but also with conditions including arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and diabetes, as well as rare illnesses such as myasthenia gravis and Crohn's disease. The group is for anyone with a chronic illness and remains true to the belief that members are defined by their humanity, not their illness.

For 90 minutes every Monday evening, the group works on reflective meditation with Pember. Meditation is followed by the introduction of any new members and an open discussion. Activities such as writing in a journal, music therapy, and visualization are all explored. Members are encouraged to cultivate personal relationships, goals, and dreams throughout their illness. Pember advocates becoming a "feisty patient" and embracing recovery.

The wellness philosophy

Meditation. Visualization. Balance. Wholeness. These are the buzzwords that have redefined the way many Americans think about health and healing. The connection between the mind, body, and spirit has been emphasized in recent years and has profoundly influenced the wellness-group movement. A testament of the ability of the spirit to overcome adversity, wellness groups have provided a haven and a source of hope for people battling physical and mental illness. In these groups, conventional principles and practices have been replaced with a holistic perspective that emphasizes treating the whole person.

In 1931, Carl Jung practically laid the groundwork for the current wellness movement in his Collected Works : "Medicine has until recently gone on the supposition that illness should be treated and cured by itself. Yet voices are now heard which declare this view to be wrong and demand the treatment of the sick person and not just the sickness." Today, the voices are in fact being heard around the nation in small groups of people devoted to living, not dying.

Two lives in the balance

For Rapheala, the power of group support in healing disease was not immediately apparent when she walked in the door of Pember's group. She recalled being apprehensive about identifying herself too much with her illness in front of all those people. "I remember looking around the room that first group meeting and wondering why I was there," she says. "Although I was recovering from major surgery and undergoing chemotherapy, I still could not bear to think of myself as a 'sick person' surrounded by other sick people. Perhaps if I fled from the room, so too would the cancer and the all-encompassing pain that came with it. Like the alcoholic who goes to that first AA session, it all came down to saying out loud, 'I'm Rapheala and I have cancer.' "

As the weeks progressed, she found herself letting go of her fears in the nonjudgmental atmosphere of Pember's group. "I began to look forward to the weekly meetings as one would a reunion with old friends. ... The group offered a venue for expressing myself among others who inherently understood. I realized that an attitude of acceptance would facilitate my own healing far greater than resistance would."

Rapheala has been a member since 1990 and continues to be cancer-free. She acknowledges that she has no scientific evidence to corroborate her conviction that this group helped her to overcome cancer, but she firmly states, "I share this story ten years later, and I fully believe that the group has played the leading role in my cancer-free existence."

Rapheala's story is not unusual. Jacqueline, another member of Pember's wellness group, has been living with a degenerative neurological illness known as Huntington's disease. When she joined the group she was not only battling this rare illness by herself but also was living in substandard conditions. The combination of not having close relatives to depend on and suffering the loss of control over her overall coordination led Jacqueline to an unfathomable state of isolation. She had progressive problems with simple essential tasks such as walking and even speaking. Through the wellness group, she was able to gain insight into where her life was heading, and she learned how to improve it in the face of multiple adversities.

"Regardless of your illness, you share a commonness with the other members," Jacqueline remarks. "Many of our concerns were alike, especially the fear of losing control because of what was happening to you."

Jacqueline's progress in the group is a testament to the power of human compassion. After one year of involvement, Jacqueline found the strength to improve her living condition, learned relaxation and meditation skills, and gained permanent friendships at the wellness group. Overall, her quality of life improved, and her drive to live a full life was renewed.

Why wellness groups?

There are many wellness groups throughout the country that offer a safe and supportive haven for people fighting illness to regain strength, determination, and the gifts that can help one to ultimately heal. Wellness groups cannot be underestimated in their ability to provide support and validation to its members; their very existence is proof of the importance and effectiveness of treating the entire person within a community.

In the words of one author and philosopher, "What happens to my body happens to my life."

Related links:

Rx.magazine feature story: Congress Enters the New Age

Outside link: The Wellness Community's website has local listings for groups in your area

Outside link: The Center for Mind/Body Medicine has more information on the connection between the body and mind in illness

Outside link: The American Holistic Health Organization has good self-help tips and goal-setting questionnaires