Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Creating a Community to Achieve Health

I found myself in Buffalo on the weekend where I had the pleasure of lecturing to 30+ amazing women who belong to the Breast Cancer Support group at the Buffalo Cancer Centre. In my experience, cancer support groups are not what people typically think they are: instead of being a opportunity to focus on the grave reality of the cancer situation at hand, these groups are often a space of love, joy, peace, spirituality and health. Instead of focusing entirely on the illness, there is often talk of what's happening on the weekend, the latest interesting book, restaurants, performances, children .. the list goes on.
At the PMH (Princess Margaret Hospital) cancer support group (, I can typically pick out the attendees in the elevator based on their positive disposition. More often than not, I'm correct! I find it interesting to note that the people with cancer are in better spirits than those who are likely in much better physical health!
What do support groups do with people that are facing life threatening illness? According to research featured in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, women who were isolated before breast cancer diagnosis had a 66% increase risk of all-cause mortality and a two-fold increase risk in breast cancer mortality compared to women who were socially integrated. Women without family, children or close friends had elevated risks of both breast cancer mortality and all-cause mortality compared to women with the most social ties.
This is telling! No doubt, the women with families likely have more complete care (meals made for them, increased exercise, etc) which certainly affects prognosis. However, emotional support, love and joy found through companionship are equally important. For people facing cancer without this companionship, these social groups can be a lifeline.
For those of us not facing cancer, we cannot forget that sense of community is equally important for us in maintaining health. Part of being human is indulging in companionship, loving and laughing together and sharing our lives. And for single people, absence of a romantic partner does not mean absence of companionship and community. Companionship can be found through different people in a variety of social groups from wine tasting socials to cycling clubs. Taking steps to create community can happen before the wake up call of a cancer diagnosis: it can be as simple as saying good morning to people at your local coffee shop!