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The Transformative Power of Community

Melanie McCulley, MS, BCC, HHP

To Life! Support Services Program Manager

The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.

– Coretta Scott King

Human beings need each other and even more so in the face of adversity. When a woman hears the words, “You have breast cancer,” it’s shocking and sobering. She looks for solid ground on which to get her bearings and to support her as she enters the unfamiliar world of medical jargon, tests, surgery, treatment and the mental, physical, and emotional impact of it all. This solid ground is woven of faith, family, friends, knowledge, confidence in one’s medical team, a woman’s own strength, determination and resilience, and community.

The community I refer to is the community of breast cancer survivors and thrivers; women whose support and understanding are not borne of empathy alone, but of absolute knowing. Women who are present for each other, during the hardest of times, who have walked the same path and have the courage to turn around and walk back into the memories and triggers of their own experience to help others through theirs.

This shared life experience is an equalizer and ensures no one remains a stranger for more than the second it takes for the first fellow survivor/thriver to welcome her. This community listens with open non-judgement, offering support, hope, sharing information and resources, asking how it can help and following through. It’s not uncommon for a woman to be communicating with others, from this community, until the last minute before she is wheeled into the operating room for a lumpectomy or mastectomy, and to have messages waiting for her as she comes out of anesthesia.

This community is a haven; a liberating place where women can feel and speak their truth, unapologetically express fear and anger, shed tears, or belly laugh at something no one but another survivor/thriver can fully understand. It’s a safe space to rest and sometimes one of the few places a woman diagnosed with breast cancer can fully exhale and not have to hold it all together.

It’s a community where someone going through treatment, feeling fatigued and unwell, losing her hair and even her breasts, still reaches out with support to a newly diagnosed woman struggling to put her own feelings into words and says, “Here’s my phone number, call me anytime. You can do this.” It’s a community that wraps itself around its members giving comfort and hope, and supports and fortifies a woman for her own cancer experience while also gently initiating her into the role of support giver and mentor.

We can’t overestimate the importance of giving voice and meaning to difficult times, and how that impacts a person’s emotional healing. In the words of survivors/thrivers:

“If I can use this experience to help others, I can accept it.”

“Supporting others gives purpose to my cancer diagnosis.”

“Helping others has helped me even more.”

This community of survivors and thrivers is simultaneously open, vulnerable, unflinching and honest. They are generous, compassionate, fierce, determined, informed, grateful, strong, funny, insightful, resilient—and joyful. They are women forged in fire who have managed to keep their hearts open, their embrace strong, and their commitment to other survivors/thrivers steadfast.

If you are a member of such a support community, you understand and if you are newly diagnosed and wondering if a support group/community might help, I encourage you to give it a try. Breast cancer is formidable, but the fear, anxiety, pain and grief rarely stand a chance against a group of women who face it down together. That is the transformative power of community.