The following post was first published on the Health Story Collaborative website.

A Conversation with Molly Stewart: Breaking Out of the Isolation of Illness

An Interview with Molly Stewart LCSW, Mission Services Director at the Cancer Community Center of South Portland, Maine – by Val Walker

A Cancer diagnosis and treatment can be an isolating experience for many of us. I wanted to learn from Molly how a support organization like the Cancer Community Center could help us break out of isolation by fostering new friendships and a sense of community. On paper, of course, we could assume a community center was supposed to build connection, but in reality, I knew it was difficult to get people engaged after a life-changing illness such as cancer. What did it take to get people in person to bond again after a long period of being in survival mode and pain?

Val: A cancer diagnosis can be an isolating experience. Molly, what does it take to break through the isolation many of us go through?

Molly: Breaking through isolation takes courage. After a cancer diagnosis, your social needs could change. And even though you know you need to take the first step, you might not even be sure what you’re looking for. You don’t know what to expect.

It can take a lot of courage just to walk through our doors at the Cancer Community Center. And before you’ve walked through our doors, it’s taken courage to recognize you’re lacking support and want to do something about it. It’s not unusual for people to express surprise, disappointment or frustration with responses to their cancer diagnosis.

Speaking of the courage to be open and vulnerable, I love the work of the author, Brené Brown (The Gifts of Imperfection, Braving the Wilderness). She writes beautifully about the courage it takes to show up for each other, and “letting ourselves be seen.” Stepping into our doors at the Cancer Community Center is a statement that we’re brave enough to let ourselves be seen, to be open and vulnerable. We hope that is a healing step—just coming to the Center.

Val: It’s heartening to hear how welcoming you are for those brave enough to step through your doors. Are most people looking for the same kinds of connections and resources?

Molly: It’s important to remember that everyone has different needs when it comes to social support. We’re each unique in what we want, and our social needs change over time. Some people coming to the Center are looking to expand their social network, and others just want a quiet, private space to talk with one another. Some people are aware that they lack social support and want to engage and make connections in the activities at the Center. Others may have enough support from family and friends, and want to talk with someone who has been there.

Val: You offer classes, support groups, an individual buddy program, resources. What do you recommend for people living with cancer who feel fearful or hesitant about venturing into new connections?

Molly: I encourage people to take small steps in getting out again. You might ask, “What am I looking for?” Pay attention and become more aware of the social aspects in all areas of your life— your physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, and occupational needs. Who is there in these different areas of your life? By just being aware, assessing and reflecting how people influence us or nourish us (or not), we can choose what is best for us as we resurface from isolation. I’ve studied social science research, and as humans we are wired to be social. We want to belong and feel accepted.

Val: I believe strongly that anyone recovering from isolation, whether from an illness, or a loss, needs a period of social recovery. During our ordeal when we’re in survival mode, we may have lost our confidence in how to connect with others. We might even feel despondent about people “not being there” for us. What do you have to say about our social recovery after a long, lonely period of feeling disconnected?

Molly: If we’ve been disconnected and isolated for a time, and experienced a major life change, we might need time and support to start connecting with others. We might have rusty social skills, less confidence in making connections, or the lens with which we are making connections has changed and we have to adjust to a new social perspective. What I witness with many of our community members is that they’re building social confidence, after a difficult life experience.

If your ability to connect socially were a muscle, after a time of change in your life (whether that is an illness, the birth of a child, or retirement) you might need to rebuild your social strength with conditioning, to practice in safe and supporting social situations. Once your social muscles are toned up, you feel more prepared to go out into the world, to your workplaces, families, friendships, and communities, having had safe and supportive social interactions that helped to integrate that experience into yourself.

Val: That’s a brilliant way of looking at rebuilding our confidence to be social again! Yes, it’s social conditioning, social muscling-up. Having the Cancer Community Center as a safe place to muscle-up and practice being socially active is a way to prepare us to get back out into the world. What have you learned from working at the Cancer Community Center as their mission services director?

Molly: Val, I’ve had the experience of interacting with hundreds of people diagnosed with cancer and their loved ones when they come to the Center to find support. We sit down often one-on-one with every new community member. When they first come in, they’re often scared and overwhelmed. We share information about the programs at the Center, how we can help and work together to identify what they’re most interested in. Many activities at the Center are based on a peer support model which means we create opportunities for people to connect with someone else who has had a similar experience. We offer support and educational groups, complementary therapies, nutrition and movement activities. When someone who is recently diagnosed talks with another person who has been there and knows what it’s like to get that diagnosis and try to figure out the path ahead of them, it’s like seeing a person in the dark find a flashlight. All of a sudden, there is hope. They understand that others have been down this path, and they’re here to help and share what they learned, what worked, and what was hard for them, and that every experience is different. It’s reassuring to know you’re not alone.

Val: Would you mind telling us a personal experience of breaking through an isolating time in your own life?

Molly: I have had several times, but the most powerful one was when my son was born. I was in grad school when Leo was born. First, there were not a lot of other pregnant grad students, and I was a new Mom. Talk about a life change–you’re sleep-deprived, have a huge responsibility of caring for another human being, and you have never done anything like this before. You feel totally challenged every day, and often I felt like I didn’t know how do this.

I was fortunate to have Birth Roots, a support organization for young parents in my city. I was attending a class for new parents, and heard how other parents were coping, or not. I received the benefit of learning that everything I was going through was normal—yes, crying that much is normal. It gave me more confidence in my new role as a mother.

After the group was over, I went back to school, and continued to identify ways to connect with other families. I knew that to have balance in my new role, I had to keep integrating the role of Mother into my identity. I was never a mother before, and now, five years later, that role keeps shifting. First, I was a new parent, then I was the mother of a toddler, then a preschooler, and now have a son in elementary school. It’s always changing, but what I have learned is that I need the social support of other parents because they “get it.” They are there, and that connection helps immensely to reduce the anxiety, isolation and confusion of trying to navigate the vast challenges of parenthood.

Val: Thanks so much for your story and insights, Molly. It’s clear we need support organizations when we feel isolated by a major life change. It makes life so much easier to have people at the ready who understand our predicament, so we can practice being socially engaged in new ways. It’s heartening to learn from you how we can foster long-lasting, deep friendships, and a build a solid sense of community.

Molly: I enjoyed our time, and thanks so much.

Val Walker, MS, is the author of The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress (Penguin, 2010). Formerly a rehabilitation counselor for 20 years, she speaks, teaches and writes on how to offer comfort in times of loss, illness, and major life transitions. Keep up with Val at TheArtofComforting.com.