Friendships formed through advanced cancer, support groups, and memes

This isn’t your average group of 20- and 30-something-year-old friends.

Bethany, Jeremy, Kelly, Lisa, Megan, and Vince met in fall 2021 as part of the Young Adult Peer Group Program, a focused support group for young adults at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute with advanced cancer, organized by the Institute’s Young Adult Program (YAP) for patients from 18 to their early 40s. While they range in age from 24 to 37, with various diagnoses, the group clicked soon into their eight-week group, and now talk nearly daily as they live through the ups and downs of chronic illness.

“This was the first support group that felt like people got it,” says Jeremy, 30, who was originally diagnosed with a brain tumor at 12 and has since had several recurrences. “It took me a while to find my people. I put myself out there in the regular YAP support group in 2015 and have done one-on-one therapy, but I didn’t choose this group for the therapy—I chose it for the friendships.”

“It’s such an amazing, supportive group of friends,” Vince adds. “I just wish I met them under different circumstances.”

While the group was formed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the friends have had a chance to connect in person, beyond their constant Facebook Messenger chats. Kelly, Lisa, and Bethany all live near each other and have had hours-long coffee dates, while each member of the group makes an effort to visit others who may be in the hospital recovering from surgery. They even stayed late on the Zoom call for this story to coordinate their upcoming visits to Dana-Farber for treatment.

“When one of us is going to Dana-Farber, we all check in to see who’s there and if we can connect, even if it’s just for a two-minute hug,” Megan shares. “There is serious support in this group but having the community has been most important for me. This group has provided me with the knowledge that I’m not alone.”

Being a young adult with cancer—or in Kelly’s case, aplastic anemia, a rare bone marrow condition—is a unifying factor beyond anything else. Several members had tried support groups for their specific diseases, only to feel like the odd person out with most members in their 60s and 70s. And they feel connected to each other in a way their “non-cancer friends” can’t understand.

“My friends were all going to college and having fun experiences and I didn’t know if I was going to be alive in two years,” says Kelly, the youngest of the group at 24. “A lot of my good friends have left and the ones who are still here can’t understand. It gave me a lot of validation to find people who can relate to what I’m going through.”

One thing the whole group can agree on is humor. While they have differences in their sense of humor, they were all relieved to find a group where they can laugh about some of the things they’re going through—like pooping, or worse: not pooping.

“In the cancer world, it’s hard to bring in your sarcasm with people who are newly diagnosed and might not be ready for cancer humor, which is totally okay,” Jeremy explains. “But with this group, we got a feel from the group of where we were and now, we’re sending cancer memes and can understand each other. You have to kind of make fun of it a little bit.”

Bethany shares how the group’s virtual game nights have been full of jokes and memes that may not get big laughs with their non-cancer friends. “We all tend to write very similar answers and share our terrible cancer jokes,” she says.

It’s not all jokes, though, or even all cancer, says Lisa. “I appreciate that when we do talk, it’s not solely about cancer,” she says. “We can share what else is going on in our lives. With my friends who aren’t in the cancer world, they only want to know what’s going on with me medically.”

While their eight-week support group is long past, these friends don’t see their support for each other going away anytime soon. And they encourage other young adults facing advanced cancer to put themselves out there too, to find their people, push past discomfort, and find community. It might take a while, as it did for some members of the group, but they’re there.

“I genuinely feel like these people are my best friends,” Kelly shares. “Anytime we see each other in person, I look forward to it all day.”

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