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For cancer patients, support is just a phone call away

Cancer survivor Robert Gunther plays with daughter Larkspur at the family's home in Phoenixville, Pa. Gunther gets encouragement from a weekly teleconference support group hosted by the Cancer Recovery Foundation of America.
UMNS photos by John Gordon.

By John Gordon*
Nov. 7, 2007 | HARRISBURG, Penn. (UMNS)

As the Rev. Michael Gingerich listens on a speakerphone, calls come in from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Nebraska and Canada.

The callers have something in common. They’re all battling cancer and seeking friendly voices that offer support and encouragement.

"I think it’s essential to be able to have the support of people who understand and have been on a very similar journey," said Gingerich, director of program services for the Cancer Recovery Foundation of America.

"And even though every cancer experience is different, there are a lot of similarities, a lot of feelings that everyone goes through."

Gingerich moderates a weekly conference call to provide a telephone support group for cancer survivors. Topics during the hour-long call range from fear to gratitude.

The Rev. Michael Gingerich moderates a teleconference support session.

"For many people, fear is perhaps the first reaction that they have. And for a lot of them, it’s very overwhelming," said Gingerich.

"Gratitude is one of the things we talk about on our calls almost on a weekly basis — how important it is to seek what is right, what is good, what is going well in life, and to celebrate that."

Support options

Gingerich says the conference call is ideal for people unable to attend a face-to-face support group meeting because of their illness or location. Some members call from bed or from a clinic while receiving chemotherapy.

"What we do here at the Cancer Recovery Foundation is try to let people know that there are options, that it’s not hopeless," he said.

Twenty years of experience as a United Methodist pastor helped prepare Gingerich for the task. The disease touched his family three years ago when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"That has helped tremendously to understand what it’s like to be a family member and a caregiver of someone who’s going through cancer and to know what the difficulties and the fears and the worries are when you hear that diagnosis," he said.

Gingerich also hosts a weekly telephone support session for caregivers.

The Cancer Recovery Foundation was begun by author Greg Anderson, who was diagnosed in 1984 with lung cancer and given 30 days to live. Anderson survived and shaped the foundation’s tenets that — besides medical care — faith, attitude, support, nutrition and exercise are all important elements in surviving cancer.

Sharing the journey

During a recent call to the support group, Robert Gunther noted it was the first anniversary of his cancer diagnosis. A freelance writer from Phoenixville, Pa., Gunther underwent surgery and chemotherapy for colon cancer.

Gunther credits his long-distance friends with giving him the encouragement he's needed.

"It’s helped me in a couple of ways," he said. "There’s sort of the broad help in feeling like you’re not alone in this whole thing, and that there’s other people who are struggling with some of the same issues."

“(There's) help in feeling like you’re not alone in this whole thing.”
–Robert Gunther, cancer survivor

When Gunther learned he had cancer, his first thoughts turned to his family—his wife, Cynthia, and their three children, Anders, 22, Pelle, 16, and Larkspur, 10.

"I wanted to be able to see my daughter, who’s 10, get married," said Gunther. "It’s sort of a cliché because that’s the thing that you think that you would think of. But it’s actually true."

With chemotherapy treatments completed, Gunther feels stronger today. Though he lacked the strength for a planned 140-mile hike, he has managed to go whitewater kayaking. He also exercises regularly and now eats healthier foods.

Gunther calls cancer a "brutal, relentless and totally unpredictable" disease, but he's learned it is not a death sentence.

"I’ve had more conversations with people about gratitude, forgiveness and things that you would think that you would talk about when things were going really well …," he said. "It changes the way you look at the world, and there’s a real opportunity there."

For more information about telephone support groups, contact the Cancer Recovery Foundation of America at (800) 238-6479.

*Gordon is a freelance writer and producer in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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