By KAMIL ZAWADZKI
When Garden City's Builders of Hope cancer support group meets each month, there is more to it than the disease or their numbers.
It's about being able to come together with other people who know what it means to be diagnosed with, live with, and survive after cancer.
"We may be few, but we enjoy each other's company," said Denice Good, a seven-year survivor of breast cancer.
The group is casual, and they don't meet with any certain agenda. They talk about anything from politics to business to just their everyday lives.
Talk about cancer, including treatment and awareness, can weave its way into the discussion, particularly when new members come to check out what the group is all about.
"The group can meet you where you're at," Good said, adding that people can use it to find out where they can look for reliable sources and responsible information about it.
But there's also humor, and the participants join in joking about aspects of living with, and after, cancer.
"Any disease, you come up with ways to deal with it," Good said. "Joining other survivors, you share it."
And humor is just one coping mechanism that helps lighten the daunting burden of cancer.
That doesn't mean that they don't take cancer, whatever its form, seriously. But through their experiences with it, each participant can find solace in knowing that they've been able to make it this far, and they can pass that encouragement on to others who may join the group.
The point of it all, they say, is to help people overcome the disease, if not physically, then mentally and spiritually.
This group is a reincarnation of the original cancer support group that served the community but eventually fell by the wayside.
When he arrived in Garden City as a chaplain at St. Catherine Hospital in 2002, Remigius Ekweariri saw that there was a need for such a gathering to be resumed.
"Out here in this community, there is a hunger for something to get people together," he said. "And that's how we started it."
The group was much larger then, Ekweariri said. Some members simply moved away to other communities; others passed away, and not necessarily from the cancer.
But even as their numbers have dwindled steadily, the Builders of Hope believe it is important to keep their group going and open.
"The number is important, but it is not the essence," Ekweariri said. "The essence is what you get out of this group."
Camaraderie, knowing there is a forum they can turn to where people know what they're going through is important for cancer patients and their caregivers.
Ekweariri said that it might not necessarily be therapeutic, but it can help people with what they need to go through during their treatment.
"I'm just a normal, average person," Good said. "If I made it, I need to be that beacon for others."
The group has multiple goals and functions, and members attend events such as Relay for Life to help raise awareness. And they want people to be sure to get regular check-ups and screenings. The more common type of screenings for females might be mammograms, and for males, prostate exams.
The Builders of Hope also engages in fundraising efforts and gives part of its funds to the Cancer Center at St. Catherine Hospital each year to help the facility pay for screenings. And this year, as the Cancer Center didn't have as much of a need for such financial assistance, the funding will benefit United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries for labs and tests on cancer diagnoses.
And while October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Builders of Hope include people who've faced various forms of cancer.
"It's not only about breast cancer," said John Ryder, a 12-year survivor of esophegeal cancer.
He attributes his survival to early detection, treatment and surgery.
He said fewer people know about this particular type of cancer, and symptoms like constant heartburn often can be overlooked.
"When somebody tells me they've got gas, right away I say 'go to the doctor,'" he said. "Don't fool around with it."
The survival rate for esophegeal cancer is 5 percent. And Ryder recalled mentoring several people diagnosed in later stages who did not survive because the disease already had taken its toll.
This was in stark contrast with Ryder, who was diagnosed early enough and who underwent a regimen of various treatments including chemotherapy, as well as surgery that required some rearrangement of his organs, such as his stomach.
"That's the biggest thing with esophegeal cancer, people don't go to the doctor. They take TUMS," Ryder said.
And, he said, the high fatality rate makes esophegeal cancer "one of those where it's 'pack your bags, you're going home.'"
"We know it is a battle of win and loss, just like every disease," Ekweariri said. "... It's something to look forward to to have a group to come out here, if someone is thinking about 'what if (it happens) to me?'"
In addition to survivors or those diagnosed with a cancer, the Builders of Hope group counts among its members some caregivers, including William Widows, the husband of colon cancer survivor Kelly Widows.
Family support is a crucial component of fighting cancer, the group members agreed. And a diagnosis and treatment also can take their toll on the caregivers who have to watch their loved ones struggle with the disease.
"It can definitely be hard on us, too, because we can only help them so much," William said.
Kelly was diagnosed in 2009 but feels she was fortunate, because her cancer did not progress much and was treated fairly quickly compared to others who have to go through multiple rounds of chemotherapy just to keep it in check, much less eradicate it completely.
The couple said that the news that the cancer was gone, and was unlikely to come back, was the best they could get.
"It meant more to me than winning the lottery," Kelly said. "To hear news like that, and I've met some real good people that had to go through some tough times... It makes me feel very, very blessed."
She said what got her through the experience was the support of her husband and family, in addition to the doctors and others she's met throughout her journey.
They come to the Builders of Hope to pay it forward and offer that support to help others face their fears, cope with diagnosis and treatment and fight the disease.
The Builders of Hope want to remind people that they are there not only for survivors but for caregivers, family and friends. And they stressed the need for that group support and camaraderie that people touched by the disease can find, not only among their own families, but groups such as the Builders of Hope.
"I remember one woman who came here that was a caregiver, and she came because this was her respite," Good said.
Others agreed that coming to the group can help a person come to terms with everything that's going on, and that it's OK to embrace it rather than give up.
"You can't get depressed about it," Ryder said. "Life dealt me a bad hand, but that doesn't mean I have to accept it."
"It's a battle," Good said. "But you can't surrender."
Builders of Hope
* The Builders of Hope support group meets the first Sunday of each month at 2 p.m. at the Downtown Vision office, 413 N. Main St.
St. Catherine Hospital Chaplain Remigius Ekweariri, who helps conduct the meetings, can be reached at 272-2513.