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John Bos: Where men help men face the ‘Big C’ in Northampton



Sunday, November 02, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — We call it the “Big C” (along with some other things) in our weekly men’s support meetings at Cancer Connection just across Locust Street from Cooley Dickinson Hospital.

Founded in 2000, the nonprofit Cancer Connection is at heart a “living room” where each Wednesday at noon a group of from six to a dozen or more men meet for an hour and a half to talk about cancer and their lives. The Men Living with Cancer support group began in 2002.

We sit in a circle on comfortable chairs and couches to talk about uncomfortable things. As one wag noted, it is like sitting on lounge chairs on the Titanic. Gallows humor is only one of the ways we have of learning how to live with cancer.

Coming to grips with the fact that we are not in control of our lives is more than sobering; it opens for those of us who choose to stay with the group the reality that we don’t want to walk alone on the path that cancer has mapped out for each of us — that we want and need to be in the company of compassionate comrades as we venture into the uncharted wilderness that lies before us.

We often talk about how equally difficult, perhaps even more so, our cancer is for our wives, partners and children. Then we say how reluctant we are to “worry” our wives and other family members by sharing our pain and fears. We then rationalize that by saying “Well, hell, it’s a guy thing” ... and then finally admit that is not true.

While our loved ones know Wednesdays at noon are fixed dates on our calendars (except when a trip to Dana Farber, Mass General, Cooley Dickinson or Baystate for a chemo appointment or some kind of scan “interferes”) they have no clue what we do when we’re in the Cancer Connection “Living Room.”

At a memorial service for one of the guys we lost last year, two wives, whose husbands are still with us, responded enthusiastically to the idea of meeting other wives, partners and caregivers along with their husbands.

Thus was born, last spring, the idea of a Partners’ Potluck which was finally given life Oct. 11 in Northampton at the Lathrop Community Meeting House, arranged by a member of our group who lives there. It was the first time in the 12-year history of the men’s support group that we convened socially outside of our weekly meeting and, more significantly, with our wives, partners and even a few of our kids.

Will we do this again next year? Absolutely. Two of six widows were present, the other four being previously committed but each of whom expressed the strong desire to attend if we do it again. One widow named Rachel wrote expressing some apprehension about the potluck.

“Just trying to scope it out to see if I feel comfortable coming,” she wrote. “I have had a year of deep and incredibly painful grief and it is important that I make good choices in social situations/events. I know the group meant the world to Dan, and it was really healing. The best alternative treatment he did and the one he committed to. If you can give me a sense of the vibe, feeling of the event, I would be grateful.”

After dinner and before dessert it was announced that this was “ladies night out” and the women were given the floor. It became clear that communication, conviviality and connections were all fostered by the small group seatings at the six round tables in the dining room.

Further proof of the pudding came in an email that Rachel wrote after the event: “Thanks for everything. I enjoyed the evening and sitting with Betsy and Martine — planning for coffee out! It was good to connect with people from Cancer Connection. Martine is an old friend I had lost touch with, and I didn’t know [her husband] Joe had cancer. I am planning to visit with them on Monday, with their children. Good luck with the men’s group.”

“Perhaps the greatest reason for putting this (first time) Partners’ Potluck together,” the invitation to the widows had said, “is the fact that we have been blessed by the courage and grace your husbands have shown as they were taken away by this damnable disease. Among other things, we would like to share our gratitude for the inspiration your men have given us and for your support of the men we learned to love.”

Mission accomplished.

Shelburne Falls resident John Bos has been a member of the “Men Living with Cancer” support group at Cancer Connection since its founding in 2002. Contact him at john01370@gmail.com if you have questions.