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Group offers another weapon in members' fight against cancer

MIT has many groups and other resources to help community members cope with the pressures of academic life. But there is also a group that confronts the ultimate pressure-the prospect of dealing with illness and possibly death from cancer.

The dozen or so members of the Cancer Support Group meet once a month to discuss their encounters with the various forms of the illness. They share information and encouragement during treatment and its aftermath with others who can understand their experiences even better than their own family members. Social worker Dawn Metcalf and Chief of Psychiatry Peter Reich of the Medical Department sit in and answer questions when necessary, but meetings are unstructured, as members trade comments and banter stemming from the close bonds they have formed.

"It's the first place where I could comfortably be with people who knew exactly what I was going through," said Al Drake, a retired professor of electrical engineering and computer science who was diagnosed with chronic lymphatic leukemia 10 years ago.

Frank Urbanowski, director of MIT Press, was already in a men's group when he learned he had cancer of the stomach and esophagus several years ago. "They were very sympathetic and supportive, but it just didn't get to the level I wanted," he said.With encouragement from the group, he found another man across the country with the same condition he had and who also recovered.

"These people are my friends and they care about me. I can come here and complain, and they understand it and don't get fed up with it," said a group member who asked that her name not be used.

The group is also useful for discussing matters unique to working at MIT. Members include faculty and staff from all over the Institute. "It's a real cross-section of the MIT community. Cancer is really a leveling factor," she said. "Everyone is equal in this room."

"Because it's an MIT group, an enormous amount of information gets exchanged," Professor Drake said.

"But we also have a lot of fun. We laugh a lot," added Aase Huggins, a retired administrative assistant in the Department of Economics. She underwent a mastectomy about 10 years ago and a second one seven years later, when she joined the group. "My father would definitely disapprove," she quipped. "I was brought up that you take care of [problems] yourself, but I learned."

Almost all of those who now attend meetings are not undergoing treatment, and some have been cancer-free for several years. "Most of us thought [when we joined] that we wouldn't be here now," Professor Drake said. "I think we're running a lot of lucky streaks."

Not all members have been so lucky. The group was founded in 1990 by Professor Margaret MacVicar, the founder of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program who died in 1991 at the age of 47. Another early member was Ann Friedlaender, a professor of economics and civil and environmental engineering and MIT's first female academic dean who succumbed to cancer in 1992.

Both women offered reassurance and optimism to their fellow patients even as their own disease progressed. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1990, "I thought I was done for. But Nan [Friedlaender] was the first person to disabuse me of that notion," said the member who requested anonymity. She in the only one still undergoing chemotherapy, but others keep attending partly because, even if they seem to have made a full recovery, "the threat of cancer just lingers with you," she observed.

As well as discussing treatment, doctors and hospitals, group members also talk about what effects cancer has had on their lives. Some have found that it actually has given them a more positive outlook on life and reduced their fear of death. "I don't worry about things any more. I used to worry about everything," Professor Drake said. And while many healthy group members continue to attend meetings for continued support and friendship, others who used to attend "don't come any more, because they associate it with being sick," said Carolyn Bishop, whose husband Wally is a retired researcher in biology.

Having cancer also prompted several to get their personal affairs in order in case they didn't survive. Arthur St. Andre, a retired nurse practitioner in Medical, had surgery for colon cancer five years ago, "and my first week back at work, I made a living will and gave it to my doctor."

Inevitably, some in the group have died over the years, but survivors don't dwell on that outcome. "I would've thought that topics of death and dying would be discussed more, actually," said Shaoul Ezekiel, professor emeritus of EECS and aeronautics and astronautics, who was treated for a benign brain tumor. Along with the sad moments, there have been happy ones-two or three members have gotten married in recent years, and others are enjoying retirement, something they once thought they wouldn't have the opportunity to do.

Most support groups of this type exist for only a few months; meeting for six years is quite unusual, Ms. Metcalf said. The years of conversations have been an education for the group's facilitators as well as its members. "I've learned a great deal," Dr. Reich said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 11, 1996.

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