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Male-only support group helps cancer patients stay strong
These men know what it's like to live half a year eating only a liquid nutritional supplement, to throw up five or six times a day, to dread the latest test results, to spend a year of their lives in a hospital, to pray to be healed from a disease that claims the lives of more than half a million Americans each year.
Once a month they gather in a room at the American Cancer Society in Cape Girardeau and talk to each other about having cancer. Some, like Walter Stone, are in remission. Some, like John Reece, have exhausted their latest round of treatments and are waiting to see what happens next.
"I'm ready for whatever the good Lord's got figured out for me," said Reece, who has lymph and lung cancer.
The Men Battling Cancer Fellowship Group formed a little more than a year ago. It began when a man attending Saint Francis Medical Center's I Can Cope support group asked if a men's group existed. He was told no because men's support groups are rarely successful. "Typically men don't open up and share personal information with just anyone," said Mary Nespor, a cancer navigator for the hospital.
But after John Coleman asked again at the next meeting, the hospital and American Cancer Society community manager Kelly HeiRonimus decided to give it a try.
One rationale for a men-only group is that men who have cancer might be more comfortable talking about having cancer with other men. Some men who have cancer have difficulty relating what they're going through to their families. "You have to feel you have it under control," said one member of the group.
The group has 18 members, though not everyone comes to every meeting. But Wayne Pressley of Cape Girardeau returned early from a trip to Georgia to attend the April meeting. "I worry when we have people who are not here," he said.
Eight men attended the June meeting. Besides Stone, Reece and Pressley, they included Paul Seabaugh of Cape Girardeau, the Rev. Doug Scott of Scott City, Jerry Kendrick of Jackson, Jimmy Warder of Cape Girardeau and a Cape Girardeau man who didn't want to be identified in this story. He is concerned that others knowing he has had cancer could affect his real estate dealings.
Some of these men, like retired Illinois State Police officer Warder, are used to rescuing others and usually keeping their emotions to themselves. These men aren't afraid to say they break down sometimes in these meetings. "We're grown men. We've got egos," Warder said. "We don't want to talk about this. But we talk about it every time, and if we want to shed a tear then we shed a tear."
'Lesson in mortality'
Being diagnosed with cancer immediately changes a person's outlook on life. "It's your first lesson in mortality," said the real estate agent, who had prostate cancer. "I used to look at people with cancer like they were somebody different from me. They're not. We're no different from anybody else."
Said Pressley, "Being the husband and the father in the family, you think you've got to be strong. Here you just open up and it doesn't make any difference. You don't have to be that strong. You should say, 'Hey, I'm really worried about this.' Where I might not tell my wife I'm worried about something because I don't want her to worry."
Cancer plays no favorites. Two members of the group are pastors. The Rev. Scott, whose esophageal cancer was first diagnosed about 10 years ago, was more accustomed to consoling others when he joined the group. "I thought, I don't need any help. I can do this. But they had something to share that I needed.
"I figured the Lord sent them. He wants me to listen."
Scott said he's ready to go when the Lord is ready to take him but hopes he gets to do some things he needs to do first.
His esophagus has been removed, and his problems with cancer have been multiplied by fracturing his right leg in an automobile accident just before he was to leave the hospital. He spent a year in the hospital altogether. He was due to go home the day after the group's June meeting and was buoyant about that.
Part of the support these men receive from each other simply sounds like male bantering. Reece, a retired truck driver, sat across the table from Warder. "I'm glad to finally meet a cop who isn't writing me a ticket," Reece kidded him.
But the men also exchange information about their treatments and how they feel about having cancer. "There's a need for us to speak up and not be afraid," Scott said.
Stone came to his first meeting "highly depressed."
"I was ready to go," he said.
Doctors discovered his lung cancer a year and a half ago in a heart X-ray. He has been hospitalized a number of times since then, has had pneumonia and has undergone 15 radiation and four chemotherapy treatments.
But the group refused to allow him to stay down. "I said, We've got to get you to smile," Warder said.
"I never would let myself get depressed," Warder said. "I never let myself dwell on it."
Stone hardly said anything at the first few meetings but eventually opened up. His wife told Nespor the group had made a big difference in his life.
Kendrick presumed he was cured after his treatment for melanoma in 1961 at age 26. He, too, became depressed when it reappeared two years ago on his lung and spleen. He has been through numerous clinical trials. One shrank the tumors remarkably for awhile and then stopped working.
One doctor told him just to go home and be comfortable but Kendrick refused. "I don't give up," he said. Another surgeon removed 15 percent of his stomach in a bid to buy him some time.
Doctors at M.D. Anderson, the famous Texas cancer center, told him that being involved in so many clinical trials in the past prevents him from being part of a new one because the data would be tainted.
"I'm in limbo," he said.
But his son has found a doctor at the University of Chicago willing to look at his case.
In his mid-50s, doctors found cancer emanating from Pressley's appendix during an outpatient hernia operation. His next three days were sleepless. They caught his stage four cancer just in time with 30 rounds of chemotherapy. "I'm very fortunate," he said. "I'm very blessed."
That was in 2001, but cancer hasn't left his life completely. He has a semiannual test for cancer coming up. "You always have this little feeling in the back of your mind: Is it going to be back there?" he said.
He also feels a responsibility to be involved with the American Cancer Society and be a resource for other people who are diagnosed with cancer.
The 80-year-old Reece underwent 25 radiation and eight chemo treatments right after his diagnosis almost two years ago. He was off chemo for months, long enough to schedule a cruise that had to be canceled when his cancer began growing again and the chemo started again.
"That really put me on my knees," he said. His doctor has said he can't stand any more intravenous drugs and can't have radiation because of the location of his esophageal cancer. Pills are his only option. "But I believe I'm going to be healed," he said.
His mother and sister both died of cancer, and watching them handle their diseases has made all this easier for him. Most of the men in the group have been through much more than he has, he said.
"This group has made me ashamed of myself for any self-pity I might have had for myself. I've been so blessed."
Bad news is leavened by good. At the group's May meeting Stone announced he was cancer-free. The room burst into a wild celebration. Two weeks ago Stone had a "small" heart attack but that didn't keep him from the June meeting.
Warder has no lack of hope and determination. His esophagus ruptured on Christmas Eve 2004. After the New Year he discovered that his esophageal cancer had spread to his liver. He has been getting chemotherapy for liver cancer every week for two years. He can have no more chemo but still has four liver tumors. He's checking to see if the Mayo Clinic will accept him for a new kind of treatment.
"Now I'm just sitting here waiting to see what happens," he said.
After his diagnosis, doctors in St. Louis told him he might live another six months. That was three-and-a-half years ago. "We're going to win. I'm going to see what the Lord's got in store for me," he said.
Faith in a supreme being is one of the common denominators in the men. Earlier this year, Warder witnessed his religious belief to a man receiving his first cancer treatment. Afterward he discovered the man, Dave Johnson, is a Lutheran minister. Warder was embarrassed, but in his sermon Easter Sunday Johnson talked about how much a man named Jim's little sermon had meant to him. "He reminded me of what I know to be true," Johnson said, that whether he's cured of cancer or goes on the next level is a "win-win situation."
Seabaugh calls himself "a firm believer in prayer. I had people in seven states praying for me and still have a lot of people." In 2001 he was diagnosed with bladder cancer that turned up later in his lung. Part of his lung has been removed. He received 26 rounds of chemotherapy before getting a nine-month break. He is taking pills now that make him break out. "My doctor's kidding me about being a teenager," he laughs.
Kendrick was mad at God when the melanoma first appeared. His attitude has changed. "Having faith in a God of love is the most important thing you could have in fighting any kind of disease," he said. "I'm a very fortunate person. I was able to raise my kids. I'm 73 years old. Now I can play with my model airplanes."
Stone has gotten spiritual support from people he doesn't even know. "Any time I told anybody I had cancer they put me on a prayer list," he said. "Every church in this town, I'm on their prayer list."
Pressley is a retired school administrator, lobbyist and college professor who said faith is the touchstone for all the men.
"There's a saying that probably came out of World War II: 'There are no atheists in a foxhole.' I contend there are no atheists in a cancer ward," he said.