A diagnosis of cancer creates a crisis for the person with cancer and for their entire family. The diagnosis is frightening. The treatment is often difficult. The after shocks can be long lasting. Families facing cancer often look for a place where they can find the support they need to cope with both the immediate and the long term effects of cancer.
It was for this reason that Together Living With Cancer was founded. The purpose of TLC is to provide emotional and spiritual support to families living with cancer.
It does not take an expert or a professional to lead a TLC group. It does require two people who have had direct experience with cancer—either as patients or as support people—who are willing to commit to develop this ministry in their church or community.
Just a few bits of advice about leading a TLC group:
Do Not Lead Alone
The first thing we would say to you as a leader of a TLC group is that you need a co-leader. Jesus sent his disciples out in twos. It is an important principle. We do not feel it is wise to try to lead any support group alone. If you cannot find a co-leader, perhaps you need to wait to start the group until you do find one. You need emotional and spiritual support to lead the group. You need to debrief the meetings with someone. You need someone to plan with. You need someone for the hard times when someone in the group dies. And there will be times when you need to be able to take vacation trips or stay home to celebrate a family member’s birthday. A co-leader makes all of this possible.
Starting A Group
When two or more people in your church or community have agreed to co-lead a TLC group, the first thing you will need to do is to find a place to meet. You may want to go to your minister to explain what you want to do and to ask for a place to meet. If you are unable to meet at the church, or for some reason you do not want to, you might approach your community library or YMCA for a room.
To get the word out about what you are doing, you might meet with your own minister and with other ministers in your community. Most ministers are aware of many people in their congregations who have cancer who would welcome such a group. TLC provides a wonderful referral resource for ministers.
You might also meet with the social workers or chaplains in your local hospitals. And you might send information to physicians in your area. We developed a brochure to leave with these contacts, so these professional care givers could let people know about the group.
Even though TLC is a Christian support group for families, everyone is welcome, regardless of where they are on their journey of faith. TLC is not a place where people are preached at. It is a place where people experience being loved and prayed for in the name of Christ.
Expect to start small. Success is not measured in numbers in this kind of ministry, but in the meeting of very real needs.
Know Your Limits
Being a group leader does not mean that you and your co-leader have to do it all. The group members will come with their own gifts and abilities. If you feel like you have to make endless phone calls or write lots of notes or be the primary prayer support for the group, the abilities of the other group members to minister will not have an opportunity to emerge. Realize your limitations. Live within those limits. Allow the group to begin to minister to each other.
Understand Your Role
A support group needs a facilitator. That is your role. You do not need to be an expert to facilitate a TLC group. You are not in the role of a therapist or counselor. You go to TLC as a group member. Do not take on the role of expert because this will kill the group. If people look to you for advice, share only from your own experience and refer people back to professionals for professional advice. Let people say what they are willing and able to say. Thank people for sharing. Share your own struggle and journey as honestly as you can.
Be Aware of Other Issues
Be aware that cancer is not the only issue in people’s lives. People often have other major concerns as well. Our experience has been that people tend to only mention these other concerns briefly to the group, but they may talk to you more extensively about them. The most common issue that people seem to bring with them is the reality of a family member’s chemical dependency. A spouse or child or grandchild or parent may be addicted to alcohol or drugs. Statistics show that about twenty-five percent of the general population is effected by a loved one’s addiction to alcohol or drugs. In our group, the percentage of people so effected is closer to seventy-five or eighty percent. It would be very good for you to be aware of the resources available in your area to address these very important needs. Alcoholic’s Anonymous, Al Anon or other twelve step groups are excellent places to refer people. In addition, it would be good to encourage group members to visit the National Association for Christian Recovery. It is an excellent resource for people struggling with issues such as addiction and codependency.
When a Group Member Dies
The most difficult reality we face as a group is the death of a group member. We do not face this difficult experience very often, but we do face it. Because it is such an important issue, we have included a separate section to help you respond to these occasions when they arise.
Leading A Discussion
You may feel apprehensive about leading a group discussion. This is a common feeling. You do not know if people will talk or if you will know how to respond. It is helpful to remember that your role is to provide a simple structure that allows for discussion. It is the group’s job to do the talking. You only need to give them the opportunity to do so.
After you read the introductory material to a topic, you can read the discussion questions for the week, one at a time. After you read each question, allow for a time of silence. Consciously relax during this time of silence and wait patiently. People need time to think and reflect after a question has been asked. And they need time to decide if they want to talk. If you are relaxed during this time and able to wait, people will feel comfortable taking time to think and people will take the responsibility to respond as they are ready.
As a rule, it is best to wait until several group members talk before you share anything yourself. This helps the group see that it is their job to discuss the question. But occasionally you can lead the way by talking first. After each person talks, allow for another time of silence. Then ask, “Does someone else have some thoughts about this subject?” until several people have had an opportunity to talk.
An alternative to simply reading the questions is to distribute the questions as a handout and to have everyone spend three to five minutes writing responses to the questions on their own before you discuss them. We have found this to be especially helpful when we are focusing on difficult emotions, such as anger and depression, or on other issues that people tend to not want to talk about. Having people write before discussing gives everyone an opportunity to think about their responses to a topic. More people share when we use this approach. And people share more honestly. People may not want to write every time they come to the group, however, so varying your approach is probably a good idea.
Listening To Emotional Pain
TLC is a group where emotions are valued and respected. We keep a box of kleenex and pass it around as needed, because we often have good reason for tears. But we also have reason to laugh, often at ourselves. People report that they often come to the group with little energy, feeling discouraged, not really wanting to be there. And they consistently report that they leave feeling energized, more hopeful and glad they came. The fact that we cry together does not mean that we have a “downer” group. It actually provides a healing release for people and makes genuine laughter possible.
As a leader, listening to emotional pain can be very difficult. This is especially true if you are not sure how to respond. When someone tells us that they are sad or anxious or angry, it is not uncommon to think that they need or want us to somehow take their pain away. We may, therefore, think we need to say something that will make the person feel better.
What we need to realize, however, is that people have very little opportunity to actually feel their emotional pain. They often feel called upon by their families or friends to “be strong.” For emotional and spiritual support to be experienced, people need the freedom to express whatever they feel. For release and healing to take place they need to express what they feel in an environment of acceptance and respect.
Our goal is not to take people’s pain away or to make them feel better, but to give them a safe place to express as much as they are able to express of the powerful feelings that are part of their struggle. Our goal is to listen and to thank them for sharing. As it is appropriate, group members (and leaders) may respond by sharing their own emotional struggles with the same issue. It is, however, okay to have nothing to say–except “thank you for sharing that with us.”
If the group seems uncomfortable with the expression of emotions, it might be helpful to acknowledge that you sense this discomfort and that it is not always easy to allow people to feel what they feel. Reviewing with the group the above material may prove helpful to set a tone of acceptance and growing comfort with feelings.