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[whitespace] Research supports the value of group therapy for breast cancer patients

Willow Glen--The word "cancer" was taboo at one time, as if the mention of it were itself a death sentence. Nowadays, the word is everywhere and used in conjunction with other words we once shied away from in public--breast, prostate, testicular, ovarian, cervical. No more taboos. In fact, research has found that open discussion is vital to recovery. And support groups abound these days where people dealing with cancer can share their burden openly.

At St. Andrew's Episcopal Church there's a breast cancer support group with a slightly different slant, a spiritual one.

There group members share medical and general health information; they talk openly about their feelings, and they pray together.

What's more, the group includes the Rev. Tina Sundquist, St. Andrew's assistant rector, music director and organist. Sundquist received treatment for breast cancer some 10 years ago. Beverly Bennett, the parish nurse, is also a member of the group. Bennett had her battle with breast cancer four years ago.

Bennett recalls the irony of a couple of parishioners coming to her in 1995 saying the church's brand new Health Ministries program should start a breast cancer support group. "So the idea was in the works," Bennett says, when just one year later she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

In 1997 the breast cancer support group started.

Sally Brenner, Ph.D., professor of health sciences and allied health at Ohlone College, is the engine behind the support group. Brenner discovered her breast cancer in 1989. A long-time nurse in the Air National Guard reserves and former Army flight nurse during the Vietnam war, Brenner is an advocate of support groups, especially the spiritual aspect of the St. Andrew's group.

"Prayer is a method for helping cope and getting stronger," Brenner says. She refers to several places in the Bible that couple healing with prayer. She says some cancer support groups use meditation and imagery, which comes from the Eastern part of the world. "Prayer is something we can do together and for each other," Brenner says. She knows of a Jewish synagogue in San Francisco that also uses prayer. "But they speak Hebrew," she says.

In addition to her medical expertise and her belief in spiritual help, Brenner brings openness and enthusiasm to the group. She will discuss anything. "I miss my breasts," Brenner says and arcs her arms in front of her to show how ample her breasts once were. However, she's undergone reconstructive breast surgery, including tattooing to create nipples and areolae.

The flamboyant and fun-loving Brenner--who Sundquist says wears a different hat to church every Sunday--even bared her new breasts on a Mediterranean beach (where women typically go topless) one day. Her surprised husband snapped a picture.

Brenner has read much of the research that shows the importance of cancer support groups. She says it's important to have a place to express positive and negative feelings. Dr. David Spiegal, at Stanford University found that women with advanced breast cancer who had one year of group therapy and autohypnotic techniques doubled their survival time. His research did not include prayer.

Anne Naudin, a physical therapist, was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 1999. Naudin says she was told to get into a support group because those who do so have a 15 percent better chance of survival. She joined the St. Andrew's group in May.

"It's a good place to express yourself and not bring your friends and family down," Naudin says.

The group told her that the radiation she was facing was a piece of cake compared to the chemotherapy she'd just finished. "These women bring you up," Naudin says. "It's wonderful to see people who've been through cancer and are still around after so many years and are having fun."

When she suffered a setback because of a mediport infection, the group called and asked if she wanted meals or rides to the hospital. Naudin says this was very helpful because her family is in Vermont and her husband travels a lot because of his work.

It's the loving support says Tina Sundquist. "You can't know how it feels till you've been there." She recalls when she was diagnosed and serving another congregation. She couldn't tell her friends and church members in the beginning. "I was numb and had all kinds of emotions. I needed to make my own peace." She says people want to tell you the clichés. They want to tell you it will be all right. "But you don't know it will be all right."

The group is different she says, because they've been there. "New members feel safe because we won't give them platitudes. You get to air the stuff you are going through, say whatever you want to say because it's a safe arena."

Sundquist says, "There's a scientific correlation between one's spiritual state and coping with disease. People with a deep faith deal better with medical crises."

The church, as a whole, has developed a health ministry. As one part of this ministry, they offer a healing service after each of the two Sunday morning church services. There the ministry pray and lay hands on parishioners who request it. "Some serious cancer patients are at the rail often," Sundquist says.

Some members of the breast cancer support group avail themselves of the healing service, too. "We don't claim to cure them," Sundquist says. "We pray for strength for them to deal with their disease."

Sundquist remembers when she learned of her breast cancer, she didn't know what to pray for. "I couldn't pray to have it taken away. But I could pray for the strength to get through it." When she prayed, she says, a peace came over her. "I knew everything would be OK no matter what happened."

The support group is hoping other cancer survivors (not just those with breast cancer) will join the group.

As part of St. Andrew's health education program and Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, the breast cancer support group will host an information table on the church plaza on Oct. 1, from 9 to 11 a.m. Members will wear special T-shirts and hand out flowers, cookies and brochures.

For information about the breast cancer support group, call St. Andrew's Health Ministry at 408.867.3493, extension 250. The group meets at the church on the first Sunday of the month at 9 a.m..

Sandy Sims

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