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Home  /  Integrative Cancer Care  /  Social  /  Community and Cancer

Community and Cancer

By Jeannine Walston


Community and Cancer 2“In traditional societies, the official healers—shamans, witch doctors, and wise women—who deal with life-threatening illness understand that these conditions represent an imbalance in the social order and in the body of the affected individual. Healing involves not only the herbs and advice that are the province of the indigenous professional, but also bringing the extended family or the village together in rituals to restore the social balance. These ceremonies purge social dysfunction and re-establish communal connections, the soil that these cultures believe nurtures all other healing.”
-James S. Gordon, MD

Unity Healing
We need one another.
As individuals, we form a collective.
People with cancer remind the open hearted of our humanity.
The health and healing of people with cancer is supported through restorative human connection.
Through giving and receiving, we can choose to serve as vehicles of unity and portals of compassion.
Healing occurs when we embody our oneness in the context of our wholeness.
Collectively and individually, we are one, whole, and holy.

What is community and connection?

Community is a unified body of individuals in an interacting population.

Connection is the act of connecting and the state of being connected or joined into a coherent, continuing state with one’s self, another person, and/or group of people associated together.

Why is community and connection especially important for people affected by cancer?

In the midst of severe vulnerability, people with cancer often especially need to experience community and connection. People with cancer can feel lonely through dissociation physically, mentally, and emotionally. The physical body housing cancer cells can feel foreign and create a sense of alienation with self and those around them. The mental and emotional body can experience disconnect due to the overwhelm from intense feelings associated with the cancer journey. Without the capacity to identify, stay with, move into, and express the mental and emotional reactions, people can reject themselves and others. For people with cancer struggling with these reactions in particular, community and connection offer the potential to aid in the process of self-integration. For patients without cancer-related disconnect, community and connection can provide support too. Both community and connection are inherent in social health.

What has research revealed about the relationship between health, illness, social loneliness, and isolation?

“A recent study showed that chronic loneliness affects the expression of several genes in ways that may increase the risk of developing a number of diseases. Once again, it was the perception of loneliness and stress that was strongly correlated with adverse changes in genes, independent of how many friends and acquaintances someone actually had. These researchers found that those who were the loneliest had alterations in specific genes that caused high levels of chronic inflammation… Chronic loneliness also caused changes in genes that affect immune function, causing an impairment in the body’s ability to fight invading bacteria and viruses.”
-Dean Ornish, MD, Spectrum

Research referenced by Dr. Ornish makes a key distinction. Social loneliness can be defined through perspective. The most important component is the perception of loneliness and the perception of stress. Life experiences are defined through each individual’s reaction. “If you feel stressed, you are stressed,” wrote Dr. Ornish. Likewise, being alone and feeling alone are extremely different. Some people with many friends and acquaintances still feel alone.

“Increasingly, epidemiological studies and clinical research have helped us to appreciate the power of human connections and of social context generally, in contributing to, preventing, and treating our most serious illness including, most particularly, cancer,” wrote Dr. Gordon in his chapter Mind-Body Medicine and Cancer. The invitation for each individual is to identify how to foster meaningful connection and social health.

Where are some sources of community and connection?

There are multiple levels of individual experience with community and connection that can be expressed in many different ways. Beyond the three categories listed below, additional levels of community and connection are defined by and influenced through identity, geography, culture, values, and other variables.

1. With yourself—quiet day or evening, cup of tea, journaling, reading, favorite TV show, movie, meditation, choosing to have a massage, personal retreat, self-inquiry, spiritual connection, a bath

2. With one other person—shared meal or cup of tea, movie, playful excursion, walk, professional assistance

3. With a group—support groups, meditation gatherings, art classes, exercise teams, church communities, dance groups or classes

What has research revealed about the relationship between support groups and cancer?

Several studies evaluating support groups for women with cancer indicate improvements in psychological states and survival. Other studies have shown benefits to mental health without increased survival, and some revealing no effects.

What qualities of community are fostered in support groups?

Support groups vary greatly. Conflicting research results evaluating benefits of support groups to people with cancer may be explained through this fact. The group experience is strongly impacted through the facilitator, agenda, and participants. If you are evaluating a support group, focus on these aspects of the experience and really notice how you feel after the meeting.

In some published research studies, qualities of support groups offering benefits to people with cancer included supportive expression of inner feelings, increased capacity to accept wounding, cultivation of trust and community, support to find personal authenticity and openness, discussions about cancer and the disease experience, relaxation exercises, self-hypnosis, problem solving, and assertiveness training.

What is your relationship to community and connection?

Individual definitions, experiences, and needs related to community and connection vary. Consider reflecting on and answering the following questions.

Attention and Awareness

  • What are your needs?
  • How are you feeling about yourself and your needs?
  • What needs are being met?
  • What needs are not being met?
  • How are you feeling about your support?
  • How are you supporting yourself?
  • How are other people supporting you?
  • What people create your community?
  • How do you connect with other people? When and where are you open? When and where are you closed?
  • How do you feel when you are alone?
  • How do you feel when you are with other people?
  • How do you define community?
  • How do you define connection?

Actions

  • What can you do to support yourself more?
  • What can other people do to support you more?
  • What do you need and how will you ask for it?