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News Archive - Progress Newsletter Summer 2001 Online

family retreat collage

The Ties That Bind

A diagnosis of cancer can be very isolating. Many people express the feeling of separating from the healthy world and moving to the unhealthy world. People once very close may pull away and not know what to say or do. Even within families, a sense of isolation may creep in - isolation for the patient and each family member as well.

The Circle of Care Family Retreat, a joint project of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center and Saint Joseph Mercy Hospital (SJMH), provided a safe and open atmosphere to help patients and families reflect on their cancer experiences and thus remove some of the isolation.

Uncertainty replaced by warmth
People may have been unsure what to expect at the retreat. "Teenagers entered the room slowly and reticently with the words, 'I don't want to be here,' written on their faces," comments Suzanne Mahler, director, U-M Cancer Center Healing Arts Program.

But the uncertainty was soon replaced with the warmth and friendship of the 35 patients, families and friends filling the community room of the U-M Matthaei Botanical Gardens on March 31.

Sharing of family collages
Following three simple rules - be creative, everyone in the family must contribute and come up with a title when done - everyone settled in to create a collage of their family's cancer journey. Pre-cut pictures and words were laid out on tables so participants could circulate and choose their materials. Quiet music played in the background while everyone worked on their family's collage. When the work was done, each family shared their creation.

"I was so impressed with the depth of feeling that the families were able to express when given a safe, therapeutic opportunity," says Debbie Mattison, M.S.W., social worker, McAuley Cancer Care Center, SJMH, and retreat co-facilitator. "Many people had never shared with each other about cancer like they did at the retreat. They found the collage to be a powerful visual representation of their cancer experience. Seeing that experience illustrated concretely helped them put into the words their many feelings."

Big boys do cry
One little boy commented that his Mom was his hero - he hadn't known she was so strong. Another talked about how one moment he was an 8-year-old with nothing to think about and then his Mom got cancer. He feels that his Mom is trapped and he feels trapped too. One mother commented that, "My big teenage boy who doesn't show his emotions, who doesn't cry, added to the collage - Big Boys Do Cry." The collages helped to put into words thoughts that may never have been shared.

After lunch, the families separated for private reflective time. The young adults and parents spent time walking the beautiful garden trails and writing in a nature journal. The kids drew their family tree and incorporated themselves, their families and their favorite activities into the parts of the tree.

Saying what needs to be said
Everyone came back together for dinner and a final candle-lighting ceremony. One-by-one people lit their candles and told what they were going to take away from the retreat. One participant reflected on the fact that like other important events in life, the experience of a serious illness should also be shared with others to celebrate the joys as well as to get the support that is needed to cope with the enormity of the task. One young adult learned how he could help his Dad and how he could face his own fears. Many kids took away the knowledge that other families are going through "this" too.

"Take this candle home with you, and the ext time you're having a hard day light it to remind you there are other kids just like you, other moms just like you . . . You are not alone."

--Debbie Mattison, MSW

"I think that we as health care professionals don't always see or appreciate how much of a family disease cancer really is," says Sandra Iaderosa, M.S.W., social worker, U-M Cancer Center, and retreat co-facilitator. "The patient may have the disease but truly the whole family is affected. Perhaps it's human nature to take things for granted. But certainly when one's world is shaken up and the potential to lose someone dear becomes a reality, then it really spurs people to say the things that need to be said but are too often left unspoken."

The Circle of Care Family Retreat was made possible by the generous sponsorship of the Christy Yenkel Fund for Community Cancer Care.


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