Group, part of the programs at Gilda’s Club North Texas, is designed to help women avoid the emotional isolation that often comes with cancer
Andra Baker is a licensed professional counselor and a certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. She is also a three-time cancer survivor and, she said, the support services she has found at Gilda’s Club North Texas have been invaluable in her fight for her health.
"Gilda’s Club has been great for me. I have been involved there for a long time, and the support I have gotten there, I can’t put a price on it," Baker said in a telephone interview this week.
But still, she said, something was missing: a place where Baker could go and be completely comfortable being herself — a lesbian cancer survivor.
"I go to my groups and the people there talk about their husbands and their children and grandchildren. Some of us [lesbians] have children and grandchildren, too. But you just feel more comfortable and more relaxed and more willing to really open up and share if you are with a group of other lesbians," Baker said.
That’s why Baker is starting a new support group, through Gilda’s Club, specifically for lesbians who are in treatment for cancer or are cancer survivors.
"We are an under-served community." Baker said of herself and other lesbians with cancer. "Sometimes there are difficulties dealing with people in the medical community. It’s like coming out all over again when you talk to your oncologist.
"Most of us have had fairly positive experiences with doctors and other health care providers. They want to help you get well. But they don’t really understand the circumstances of your life," she continued. "They can say things and make recommendations that are heterosexist, and they don’t even realize it."
Everyone wants to have a solid working relationship with their health care provider. But as Baker points out, the relationship between a cancer patient and her doctor truly is a situation where life-and-death decisions are made, and having the extra element of homophobia come into play can be disastrous.
"When you are trying to make these life-and-death decisions, you want to have informed consent. You want to make sure you know what’s going on. And if you are worried that your doctor is looking down on you [because of your sexual orientation] or is not understanding things in the proper context, then you can easily get distracted from making rational treatment decisions.
"If that happens, then that woman can come to this group and she can talk about it. She can get feedback from other women who really have been where she is," Baker said. "Then we are there to give those women that courage, that added push they need to really advocate for themselves, because they know that we are there advocating for them, too."
There are other, more personal issues that cancer brings into a woman’s life. And sometimes only other lesbians can really understand that experience. That, Baker said, is another way that the support group will help fill a void.
"When you think of something like breast cancer, the intimacy issues between two women are not the same as between a woman and her husband," Baker said. "A lesbian’s partner has a little different perspective on the physical changes and the changes that take place in sexuality when someone is dealing with cancer.
"Breast cancer is more common, perhaps, but gynecological cancers can be just as impactful. There is just no other place for us to talk about those things. Those kinds of issues can be very stressing, and without some forum to talk about those issues, the person can become very isolated," she said. "That’s one of the main things we want this group to address — that isolation."
Baker said this initial group is just for lesbians with cancer, but she hopes to eventually see a group start for the partners and other family members of lesbians with cancer.
This new group won’t be a place where women can go to get direct referrals to physicians, Baker said. But women will be able to find a free exchange of information and ideas that can help them make the best decisions about their health.
"This will be an environment where you can talk about your partner and all parts of your life. And you can share your experiences, share your resources in terms of nutrition, exercise, psycho-social support, financial resources, research that’s going on," she said. "We talk a lot about research in my other groups. We exchange a lot of information about new treatments and things that are in the works," Baker said.
"And we talk a lot about test results, too. When those CAT scans come up every three months, it’s great to have the group there in case you get bad news. And if you get good news, then that lifts us all up. Unfortunately, we lose people sometimes, and the group is there for support when someone isn’t responding to treatment."
Baker said she also hopes to put her professional training to use in the group by using some of the cognitive-behavioral techniques she used herself to get through some of the toughest times.
"It’s about dealing with uncertainty, dealing with pain and the techniques to help manage the emotions that come with cancer," she said. "The main thing is to help lesbians who are going through cancer gain strength, help them not feel isolated, to help them see that even when someone loses the battle with cancer, they can do that with dignity.
"My hope is that this group will help make the cancer experience transformative," she said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 27, 2009.