Drew Memorial Hospital’s cancer support group will return to its monthly meeting schedule on June 13.

“We took a break from offering the cancer support group initially because of staff changing, but we also wanted to pause to determine the best way we can serve our oncology patients and the greater Southeast Arkansas community,” said Lauren Case, director of the Cancer Care Center.

Meetings are free and open to the public, and attendees can expect to meet cancer patients, survivors, caregivers and close friends and family members of those affected by cancer.

Returning group members can look forward to a renewed focus on making connections, and a new group coordinator. André Lewis, assistant professor of social work at the University of Arkansas at Monticello and director of the UAM social work program, will lead the support group discussions and help direct its programming.

Lewis got involved with the support group while looking for opportunities for social work students to observe group therapy. In a search for support groups that fit the bill for student learning, he realized how few group therapy offerings were available in Drew County. “I’m always looking for opportunities to build resources for the community, and creating a support group through the hospital seemed like the most direct way to start,” he said.

The initial shock of a cancer diagnosis and identifying next steps can be a challenge. Patients or their loved ones can be at a loss. Support groups can help offer direction and help people understand, “This cancer does not define you,” Lewis said.

With a background in group therapy and counseling, grief therapy, psychotherapy and oncology social work, Lewis brings a new perspective to the cancer support group. He has special interest in families coping with cancer. He will complete his doctorate in marriage and family therapy this summer. As a family therapist, both his practice and academic research interests deal with families and improving families’ quality of life. And, beyond a career-spanning professional interest, his personal interest in oncology stems from his own family. After decades of experience as a licensed certified social worker, Lewis’ father was diagnosed with cancer.

“Cancer is a life changing experience,” Lewis said. “You’re never going to be the same after you hear that diagnosis. But you’re still alive, and every moment you live is precious.” Lewis’ father lived for 10 years after he was diagnosed, fighting the whole time. “He had a normal lifespan despite a terrible diagnosis. Both support and treatment were key to bringing him into remission.”

Beyond his own testimonial, Lewis says he sees his role in the support group as leading attendees in how to “live well” with cancer. “That’s really what I want people to take away. I want to mobilize our group members to take an active role in their illness,” he said. “Cancer can be debilitating, immobilizing. But you can fight. You can choose to live well in the moments you have.”

A supportive medical staff, oncologist, and social work staff made the Lewis family’s struggle with cancer diagnosis more manageable. “You’ll never take those moments for granted again,” he said. “The key is to living well in those moments.” That’s what Lewis wants to help others do. “Kind of normalize the experience and provide group support,” he said.

In keeping with the ideas of people learning how to live well, from time to time the group may have speakers visit to reinforce that theme and to teach skills in coping and how to “live well.” They could range from inspirational speakers, oncologists, or other champions of “living well.”

“We are thrilled to have André facilitate the support group,” said Lauren Case, who has been director of the Cancer Care Center since April 2015. She began in her role as director after the support group went on a break.

“I hear from patients all the time about how much they enjoyed the relationships formed in our support group and how they appreciated the programming,” she said.

But, the relationships weren’t solely formed in those monthly meetings, according to Case. “A lot of times we’ll see relationships form in the treatment rooms,” she said. Family members of one patient might help get a snack for another patient, or get them a blanket. Family members find common ground as new caregivers., “Families form their own connections because of the nature of cancer treatment – it’s a difficult time that they’re all experiencing together,” she said. “We truly see the most compassionate patients and family members.”

Case hopes the support group will provide more opportunities to identify common ground and shared experiences with other families, beyond those connections made in the cancer center. Lewis looks forward to having members help set the structure of the new group, and is ready to get underway. “I’m excited to get started,” he said.

Speaking for Drew Memorial Hospital administration, Chief Operations Officer Wade Smith said, “We look forward to working in partnership with an accomplished UAM faculty member to be sure we have a strong foundation for the group as it starts up again.”

The Drew Memorial Hospital Cancer Support Group will meet on the second Monday of each month at noon in Conference Room A, beginning on June 13. Lunch will be served. For more information, contact the Cancer Care Center at (870) 460-3583.