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Thu, Jan 12, 2017 at 06:00 AM

There’s more to cancer care than chemo—there’s L.I.F.E.

Rita Smith survived cancer, but it wasn’t just medical treatments that saved her.

She healed as much from the social side of her care as she did from the surgery and chemotherapy.

“At first I was really down and out,” said the English-born woman who now calls Boaz home.

When she finally took the advice of her caregivers at Marshall Cancer Care and began attending monthly support group meetings with other patients, her outlook completely changed.

“Oh, I’ve loved them all,” she says. “It’s like family. When you’re 81 you don’t go out dining and dancing so for me it was like a real treat. I’ve tried to go to all of them.”

That’s exactly why the group was created soon after the Cancer Center opened in 2013. Called L.I.F.E., which stands for Lean In For Encouragement, meetings are open to anyone dealing with cancer, whether they were treated in Marshall County or elsewhere. The goal is to provide the community with educational resources – from nutrition to pet therapy - even as patients graduate from treatment and become survivors.

“The events are very therapeutic,” says Cindy Sparkman, director of Marshall Cancer Care and a cancer survivor herself. “They are informational and about learning new ways to cope. It is emotionally healing to be in that room with people who are going through exactly the same thing as you are.”

A new topic is tackled every month at L.I.F.E. meetings, and each is selected by Sparkman and a team of Cancer Center navigators: Hanna Bright, Pam Veal and Susan Wilder. They brainstorm ideas based on issues brought to them by patients. A concern shared by many patients is the overwhelming pain and fatigue that comes with cancer treatments, so one group meeting focused on fitness. It urged patients to do some amount of exercise for muscle strength that will increase energy in the long run.

Another difficult side effect of treatment for some people dealing with cancer is nutrition.  A nutritionist used one group meeting to stress the importance of eating the right foods in order to help the body heal.

Organizers also recognized the need for end-of-life planning – which is important for everyone whether healthy or not – and arranged for an attorney to explain wills and advanced directives during another group meeting.

Some meetings bring pleasant surprises. The first L.I.F.E. session in October 2013 focused on breast cancer.  One lone gentleman attended this event with his wife, a survivor.  He stood up at the end to say how much the meeting and discussion had meant to both of them. And at the Christmas dinner in December, one couple used the event to celebrate their 50th anniversary.

“I think it’s very healing and cathartic for them,” Sparkman says. “You do feel better when you know you’re not alone.”

The largest event so far was the survivor dinner last year held in conjunction with Relay for Life that filled The Church at Lake Guntersville.

Veal said the one that was planned for cancer caregivers turned out to be really helpful for her. “Even I got a lot out of that one,” she says.

Caregivers are considered the hidden victims of cancer. Their lives also are turned upside down by the disease but they feel they must hide their feelings to protect their loved one. The meeting stressed that there is nothing wrong with a caregiver asking for help or needing time off.

“You’re not a bad person if you need someone to take care of your loved one for an hour,” Veal says.

On the lighter side, most L.I.F.E. events end up in what looks like a praise session. People feel compelled to share what they are going through and they want to express gratitude for the kind and personal care they received, both in treatments and in the support group. They tend to linger long after the event was scheduled to end.

“That’s very rewarding for us to hear, but that’s not why we do it,” Sparkman says. “However, it does let us know we are doing the right thing.”

L.I.F.E. meetings are held on the second Tuesday of each month at noon. They take place in the classroom of the Professional Center next door to the Cancer Center, just south of Cracker Barrel in Guntersville. Lunch is provided and there is no charge. A reservation is required, and can be made by calling (256)571-8000.