Let me introduce myself . . . my name is Anne and I live with my husband and our dog in Belfast, where I have been an English teacher for several decades. I love Shakespeare, Inspector Montalbano novels, and good coffee (particularly Kenyan and Ethiopian Blue Mountain).
I also have cancer: Stage Four Neuroendocrine cancer of the small bowel, which has metastasized into my liver. I was diagnosed in October 2020, started treatment two days after diagnosis, and had surgery on the tumours in my primary site in December 2020. My treatment continues, and my main health aim is to live as well as I can with this particular cancer.
One thing that I have found especially helpful, as part of my current health journey, is the Wigwam group that I joined. As a confirmed introvert, I wasn’t too sure about joining a new group, so, in case you are hesitating too, either because you are not really a natural ‘joiner’ or for some other reason, let me tell you a little more about my experience.
I confess that I hadn’t heard of Yes to Life or Wigwam until I ‘met’ Philip at a letter writing Zoom course for the fabulous From Me To You (you can check them out at From Me To You (frommetoyouletters.co.uk). Ask for a letter and/or write one: it will make your day, I promise!).
Philip very kindly agreed to meet me again via Zoom later that week to let me know more, including the news that there were support groups, although they were all currently full. So, I joined the waiting list (nothing ventured . . .) and, well, waited. If you live with cancer, you will understand waiting all too well – but this was waiting for something definitely positive to happen, so I didn’t mind. And, after a few months, Philip got in touch again to invite me to join a new group that he and Clare were leading.
They ran six meetings, one per fortnight, and each one began and ended promptly on time. There was a specific theme or topic for each meeting, from environmental toxins to dietary changes to exercise, and each followed a varied and thoughtful structure: for example, Clare might begin with breathing exercises, followed by an introduction to the topic from Philip, followed by break-out rooms which led back to a whole group discussion and a signing-off exercise. I was amazed and gratified by how much I was learning from each encounter, and I found myself looking forward increasingly to the next meeting.
The online nature of our communication not only allows us to join in from the comfort of our own homes, but it has also introduced us to others we would never have had the opportunity to meet in person. We are not all from the same continent, let alone the same country, but we are united by our shared knowledge of journeying with cancer: we all have cancer, have had cancer, or have a partner with cancer . . . and that breadth of experience and knowledge is a breath of fresh air.
My cancer is rare – most people have never even heard of it; I only found out about it myself when I began to research my own mysterious but unrelenting symptoms. Unsurprisingly, no one else in the group has Neuroendocrine Cancer. However, that doesn’t mean that the group isn’t deeply useful, or fully accepting of me, because it truly is. For one thing, I have learned a great deal about other cancers, and I appreciate now, more than ever before, how unique each person truly is and how each journey is also utterly unique. The corollary is also true: no one else quite understands your unique situation like someone else who has experienced it in their own unique situation . . .
The Belfast-born writer, C. S. Lewis, said this of friendship: “Friendship … is born at the moment when one person says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” That is how it is for us, with cancer and all the surrounding things that often don’t get talked about, but should.
The Wigwam group has offered me a lovely, kind location to explore what negotiating life with cancer really means for me and for others in the group. People who understand exactly what an emotional rollercoaster scanxiety is; who know, from experience, what bone pain or liver pain or breast pain actually feel like; who have survived the complex emotions of waiting for tests and scans and treatments which have all been delayed by the Covid pandemic; who appreciate what it’s like when your mind kindly wakens you at 3:12 am precisely with a swirling list of hard questions which don’t have answers . . . With such people, you don’t have to try to describe these things; you can simply breathe and consider ideas and possible solutions more deeply.
As our Wigwam group introduction neared its end, all of us who had continued throughout it wanted to keep in touch. We have followed the pattern set by Wigwam of fortnightly Zoom meetings, but we also now have a WhatsApp group too, where we can post anything at any time, secure in the knowledge that it is being sent to people who are on our side, who will advise us, cheer us on or grieve with us, as appropriate. I love it. And I am so very grateful for each member of the group – and for Wigwam, Philip and Clare, for starting this lovely thing which has added so much goodness to these days.
Best Wishes, Anne Bailie
If you would like to join a support group just like the one that Anne did please fill out a Get Involved form on this page here: https://www.wigwam.org.uk/find-out-more