Group Efforts: Wellness Is a Matter of Support
By Carolyn Martone
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
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,
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."
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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