Focus

 

 

Breast Cancer "Conquerors" Enjoy Serious Fun

...and make a video to prove it!

Happy hour at Molly's Restaurant in Hanover. Most of the nine women gathered at the long, rectangular table order margaritas, only two dollars a drink. "You can't beat the price," one of them laughs. In fact, there is a lot of laughter among this group of friends, teachers, moms, writers, grandmas, businesswomen, and sisters in life experience. They have dubbed themselves TGIF—thank goodness for Fridays, and Mondays, and every day of life after cancer.

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"We can talk about cancer without feeling guilty, like we're hurting or worrying our families... We can joke and whine and needle each other about chemo hair...and out-of-shape bodies because, underneath, there's always love, understanding, and support."

TGIF is a group of breast cancer "conquerors" who meet at Molly's the first Friday of every month for good cheer and camaraderie, explains PJ Hamel, co-founder of the group with Debra Grabill. Note the preference for the term conqueror rather than survivor. "Survivor sounds like you're just making it," says Hamel, a writer at King Arthur Flour, "but we're winning. We're flourishing."

The seeds of TGIF were planted six years ago—just two women diagnosed with breast cancer connecting over coffee. Today, this self-described "support group without the social worker" has an e-mail list of forty-six names and counting, most of them referred by the staff at Dartmouth-Hitchcock's Norris Cotton Cancer Center. TGIF is open to women of any age, any stage of breast cancer.

Member Pam Gile, a medical secretary at DHMC, readily admits that she's not the support group type, but this one, she explains, is different. She likes that the meetings are outside the hospital walls in a social setting. "We don't feel pressured to adhere to any guidelines. We have fun."

Hamel elaborates, "We can talk about cancer without feeling guilty, like we're hurting or worrying our families. We've all been through it so we don't have to be serious. We can joke and whine and needle each other about chemo hair, botched surgeries, and out-of-shape bodies because, underneath, there's always love, understanding, and support."

This afternoon the women's conversation shifts across topics in typical fashion.

"I have to say something about hot flashes here and now," announces Caroline Schneider of Killington. Schneider's brown hair is just starting to grow back, and she is experiencing early menopause thanks to chemo. This is her second happy hour with the group. "For once, I'm not cold all the time," she jokes.

Another TGIF member, Amy Dressler, a special educator at Grantham Village School, recalls when her tumor markers went up two years ago (a false scare, thankfully). As Dressler talks about how TGIF members rallied around her, the mood around the table turns serious. Everyone here has had her fair share of scares and tears. But then the subject segues to shoes—pink patent leather shoes, to be exact—and the laughter is back.

Photo: The breast cancer

Today, this self-described "support group without the social worker" has an e-mail list of forty-six names and counting... TGIF is open to women of any age, any stage of breast cancer.

Cancer conqueror Janet Daniels of Hanover (dubbed the group's "costume queen") wore those particular shoes in a dance video TGIF recently made to help raise money for the Prouty Bike Ride and Challenge Walk in July. For five years, Team TGIF has participated in this annual event to support research and patient services at the cancer center. This year, inspired by the wildly popular "Pink Glove" dance video made by hospital staff at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, the group decided to follow suit. Only instead of pink gloves, the twelve TGIF dancers sported feather boas, beads, and sunglasses.

TGIF credits two outside volunteers for helping them make the video (which runs almost seven minutes) a reality. Filmmaker Jeff Morris of Woodstock worked the camera, at one point strapping it to a wheelchair to achieve a weaving effect. And choreographer Denise Frawley of Lyme managed to keep everybody in line (mostly) during the upbeat dance segment, shot on the lawn outside DHMC's cafeteria.

Hamel talks about some of the challenges of the nearly three-hour shoot to create the dance portion of the video. For starters, some of the women claim a total lack of rhythm, which meant a lot of counting aloud, some confusion about "stage right," and a few pink pompoms in the face. And then there were other issues: chemo-brain; old bones; a bout of heat exhaustion. Oh, and the fact that one of the women was scheduled for major surgery the next day.

Given all the challenges, why bother making the video?

"We wanted to show other women with breast cancer how we're doing," Hamel explains. "We're thriving. We're enjoying ourselves."

"When you have the chance to do something," adds Janet Daniels, owner of the coveted pink shoes, "you say, Yes!"

"We're happy to be alive," Pam Gile states. This is evident as the video's final credits roll: "With pure gratitude to the caring folks at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Norris Cotton Cancer Center. You saved Our Lives."

This is a dance video TGIF recently made to help raise money for the Prouty Bike Ride and Challenge Walk in July. For five years, Team TGIF has participated in this annual event to support research and patient services at the cancer center. This year, inspired by the wildly popular "Pink Glove" dance video made by hospital staff at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, the group decided to follow suit. Only instead of pink gloves, the twelve TGIF dancers sported feather boas, beads, and sunglasses.

This article is reprinted from the Summer 2010 issue of Skylight.

June 04, 2010