By Suzanne Asselin

Hope & Cope’s Cancer Wellness Centre has always provided a warm and welcoming environment for patients attending a variety of support groups. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Centre was forced to temporarily close its doors. In the blink of an eye, patients and caregivers found themselves completely isolated.

Fortunately, in collaboration with volunteers, the staff wasted no time implementing a solution – the Zoom video-conferencing platform. Many patients were quick to register, not just for support groups, but also for webinars and other activities such as tai chi, qi gong, and healthy cooking.

Annabelle had just undergone surgery for breast cancer when she joined the on-line Patients Support Group offered in French.   “I was very emotional and my morale was low,” she explained. “I had a visceral need for human connection. From the very first session, I felt less alone. As a result of the safe space these meetings provided as well as my own personal work, I found a sense of calm and hope – both of which are important to my recovery.”

In fact, the group helped convince Annabelle to prioritize her well-being. Despite overwhelming fatigue, she continued to do the shopping, until one day, during a Zoom session, the other participants suggested that as someone in a vulnerable state, she should relinquish that task to her family. “As soon as the meeting was over, I spoke to my husband and my sons and asked for their support,” Annabelle said.

Annabelle participated in seven support group sessions where she often connected with the same four or five people. “I felt genuinely close to these authentic women. I no longer felt judged or believed I had to be Wonder Woman. That warrior imagery didn’t work for me – what I needed, and what this group gave me, was tenderness.  As time went on, I also felt more and more useful to the other members of the group,” she recalled.

Annabelle greatly appreciated the group’s volunteer facilitator. “The facilitator would propose themes for discussion and she made sure that everyone had a chance to talk and to share their feelings,” Annabelle noted.  Every second week, along with expressing their anxieties and sharing small personal victories, group participants also exchanged practical strategies for coping with cancer.

Annabelle is excited by this new technology that has been a lifeline for her. “I wouldn’t have had the energy to come to the Wellness Centre,” she admitted. “The meetings at the Centre definitely have their place, but at the same time, I hope that virtual support groups are here to stay.”

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