Cancer Lessons from 9-11: Building Up Support From the Ground Floor

Jan Hasak

Some of you may recognise Jan Hasak, from her recent insightful comments on the JBBC blog, so I am delighted to have an opportunity to learn more about her and to feature her as today’s guest blogger.

Cancer Lessons from 9-11: Building Up Support From the Ground Floor

The eleventh of the month gives me pause.

First was 9/11/01 when the World Trade Center towers, seemingly impregnable, came crashing down like Erector Sets built by infants. Then came March 11, 2004 when train bombings in Madrid, Spain, killed many. Several more incidents happened that time of the month over the years. Most recently the March 11, 2011 tsunami and earthquake in Japan assaulted our world. What next?

It is, however, the Sept. 11, 2001 date that grabs my attention. At that time I was five years out from end of treatment for my first bout with breast cancer. Life was great: I had just finished my tamoxifen regimen and was beginning my weekly fix of Fosamax to strengthen my bones. Normal seemed within reach.

The backstory starts in 1996. Diagnosed at age 43 with breast cancer, frightened, and raising three pre-teen sons with my husband, I decided I needed support to get through treatment and beyond. So I joined a breast cancer support group for the under-forty set at a respected hospital in Berkeley, CA. Although I exceeded the age maximum, the women welcomed (or pitied) me because I had small children and didn’t fall into the senior citizen category that made up the other breast cancer support group at that hospital.

Along with shared stories and group hugs, we laughed and shook our heads at the insensitive words people would say to us out of ignorance. Only this special sorority of cancer coeds understood. Only they could assuage my angst as I unfolded to them my treatment choices and sought their input. Only they could steer me to a knowledgeable breast surgeon when I developed noticeable lymphedema in my arm and was dismissed by my general surgeon. Without their urging, I might not have gotten under control this potentially disabling swelling.

And by going to this group I got an added bonus: smoothies. Before the meeting, a friend and I would order a strawberry-banana concoction at Whole Foods that was heaven to my chemo dry-mouth taste buds.

After a year of meeting at the hospital with a clinical psychologist as facilitator, we decided to meet regularly at a member’s home instead. Our organically correct potluck would have been the envy of any foodie around. How freeing and leisurely this setting! I could kick back and not “check in” with the facilitator (who had no cancer) in the sterile clinical environs of the hospital. I tried to suppress my guilt for not helping those newly diagnosed persons who were seeking hospital support from patients more advanced in their treatment. I convinced myself they would find soul mates of their own.

One of our dear support group members, whom I’ll name “Sarah,” particularly stole my heart. A James Taylor fan like me, she was widowed with two sons younger than mine. When we were in radiation treatments together, Sarah, seeing a woman crying in the waiting room, rushed over to me.

“Jan,” she said. “We need to help her! Let’s tell her it’s not so bad; we’re making it through.” And so we spoke reassuring words that we hoped would touch her wounded spirit. Sarah was always like that, soothing the hurts of others.

When Sarah received the news that her cancer had spread to her lungs, we were crushed, devastated. A beacon of strength, she had had a prognosis similar to mine, except for her family history of cancer. How could this happen?

Of all days, her funeral took place on that fateful September 11th morning. After watching the terrifying news on television, I drove numbly to the synagogue. It must be a movie, I told myself as the crowded room echoed with testimonies of Sarah’s grace and strength.

After the service we dragged ourselves to the burial site for the interment. I could barely look at her two sons. Always thinking ahead, she had arranged for her sister to take care of them in a city far away. She had also created a book especially for them, geared to their level of understanding. What a treasure! What a love! Still, I had a hard time watching their small faces twisted in confusion.

September 11th touched everyone in different ways. To my cancer-ridden psyche its effect was surreal. Survivor guilt reigned supreme in my mind. Why her and not me? Why those 3000 people and not me?

After that day we cancer gals never got together again the way we had before. I moved away and lost touch with these special friends except for a sporadic e-mail or two.

But good news was in the offing. Last July I ran into one of them at a book signing I held in the San Francisco Bay Area. After many hugs–and (yes!) screams– upon seeing each other after so many years, we shared our respective journeys. Both of us had survived two bouts with breast cancer and were seven years into remission from our recurrences. We were sworn sisters in cancer remission graduate school. She gladdened my heart when she told me Sarah’s boys were both in college, doing well, and moving forward with their lives. What a privilege to get the update in person.

As long as I live (without Alzheimer’s Disease), I will never forget September 11. When I had my recurrence in 2003 I harkened back to this date–and then had an epiphany. I wanted to make my life count, to pay forward what people did for me. This endeavour took many forms: volunteer work, spreading the word about coping with cancer and lymphedema, offering tips and information on the latest studies, and proffering advice, care and comfort. Support is the face of compassion.

As a tribute to my support group sisters, I share below a poem from my book, The Pebble Path, an inspirational fairy-tale-like allegory of my stumbles through cancer, interlaced with poetry:

Support Group


Gladly received

When cancer deals hard knocks

Gals knit by common script connect

Heads nod

Maybe I will approach the eleventh of each month as a surmountable challenge, as Sarah would, as a reminder to instill hope in those who struggle with answers to questions often unanswerable.

Learn more about Jan

Motivational Speaker, listed in the 2011 National Cancer Survivor Day Speaker’s Bureau Reach to Recovery Volunteer for the American Cancer Society Lymphedema Patient-Advocate for the National Lymphedema Network Board Member, Lymphedema Advocacy Group to promote awareness of U.S. federal legislation on lymphedema

Author of: Mourning Has Broken: Reflections on surviving breast cancer,  The Pebble Path: Returning home from a forest of shadows


 Blog: “Mourning Has Broken: Sharing Reflections on Surviving Cancer”