Breast cancer can rob a woman of her identity.
“It kind of steals from us everything that is uniquely feminine,” said Jane Wilson, a breast cancer survivor of nearly 13 years. “It takes away your hair, your breast; it takes away your ability to care for your family. Everything that makes a woman a woman, it kind of steals it from you.”
Beyond the physical toll of breast cancer, the impact on a woman’s mental and spiritual health can be just as severe, not to mention the challenge it can pose on a marriage.
“Steve and I had a tough time communicating after that because I didn’t know how to communicate to him how I was feeling,” said Sarah McLean, another breast cancer survivor who had a double mastectomy at age 26. “Young survivors especially go through a lot of depression and intimacy issues that I was unaware of.”
Several studies have found higher divorce rates in marriages impacted by breast cancer, as the cancer can kill a marriage as it kills the body.
Fortunately for Sarah, her husband was determined to help.
“There is no back to normal; it’s a new normal,” Steve McLean said.
“But we couldn’t do it on our own. We didn’t know what to do, and we didn’t have the tools on our own.”
Patience and passion
It took Steve nine months to find a counselor equipped to help Sarah, and it ended up making all the difference in helping the couple survive together.
Out of that process, Sarah developed a passion for helping other survivors navigate the emotional and mental aspects of breast cancer. That is how she got connected with Wilson and the two launched Project31, a support group of breast cancer victims and survivors.
A couple of years old, the group meets monthly at Integris Cancer Institute of Oklahoma.
It recently held its annual Thanksgiving dinner, next month there is an ornament exchange and yoga in January and February will feature a breast surgeon who will answer questions.
The group has also invited counselors to talk about everything from finances to intimacy.
“This is a chance for us to help other survivors and pass along the lessons we learned about how to survive,” McLean said.
Meeting at the Integris facilities came about when Wilson called the health system to inquire about a doctor’s availability to come speak to the group. That call spurred a conversation with a hospital employee and an eventual invitation to use the facility for the monthly meetings.
“They have rolled out the red carpet,” Wilson said.
Visitors to the group can include women who have been diagnosed less than 24 hours ago and those who have been battling breast cancer for years. Project31 hosts events designed to help a woman navigate the complicated world of breast cancer, but it is also a network of friends that offer a shoulder to lean on.
“We have really had a passion to serve the breast cancer community and allow them to be empowered and embraced,” McLean said. “This is also a group of friends.”
Steve, Sarah’s husband, said the chance to give back is the silver lining from the challenging years he went through not being able to heal his wife.
“The experience and wisdom that this group has allows Sarah to give back,” Steve said. “When you are sitting there as a husband, you feel hopeless. Sometimes, just sitting there is the worst feeling, but this group can offer these women something they need.”
The name of the support group comes from a verse in Proverbs 31 that says “beauty is fleeting.”
“That part really spoke to me because beauty is in our heart,” McLean said. “Part of what we do is learning what true beauty is.”
Wilson and McLean would like to see Project31 expand to other parts of the city.
The group has gained notoriety beyond the metro, including McLean recently being named Survivor of the Week by The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which highlighted the work of Project31.
“I had some really good advice from one doctor who said you just have to be really aggressive,” Wilson said. “It’s easy to not know what to do, but we want other women to know there is hope and a community that can help them through it.”
During her treatment, Wilson decided to go back to college in an attempt to find a distraction.
“I had to have something else to think of besides cancer,” Wilson said.
Her senior thesis was a report on the benefits of journaling, prayer and meditation for breast cancer survivors. She later turned that report into a book called A Jar for My Tears.
“Giving back is the best part of this,” Wilson said.
Project31 offers a network of support for breast cancer victims, survivors and their families.