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Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Cancer diagnosis kicks off new support group at local church

By Christina Stock

Vision Editor

How would you react to hearing that you or your loved one has cancer? A frightening diagnosis like cancer is bad news at any time, but doubly so in the midst of a pandemic. Cancer, however, does not wait, not even for a pastor such as Sean Lee of Grace Community Church. Lee is pastor of connection at his church and true to his title, he decided to share his journey after being diagnosed with cancer.

Lee and his wife Brenda Lee and children have called Roswell their home since 2002. Sean Lee is also known for his strong vocal skills, which he not only shares at church, but at public singing events, such as the annual Veteran’s Day celebration at Goddard High School and at musical productions such as “Les Misérables,” for Way Way Off-Broadway Theatre Company.

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When a tickle in the back of Sean Lee’s throat turned out to be non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — instead of closing himself off — he began a blog sharing his journey.

A little earlier than Sean Lee, in December 2019, Kimberly Cavin was diagnosed with breast cancer. Cavin too is a member of Grace Community Church.

Having another person — despite having different variations of cancer — was benefiting both Lee and Cavin, and they found that there was a gaping hole in the community’s support system. Sean Lee said during a phone interview that for years there hadn’t been a support group for cancer patients, and also not for their families and caretakers.

Together with Cavin, Sean Lee will start one Nov. 5 at 7 p.m., the group Cancer with Grace at his church.

In a phone interview Cavin said, “I think it’s important to have a network of people that have been through what you’ve been through, so you have guidance through the journey that you go through. Although all the cancers are very different, they have a lot of similarities. Also, to have faith goes a long way for people who are believers.”

Sean Lee said, “Cancer with Grace is not my idea, that needs to be put in. It was actually Sharon Drusedum, John (Sharon Drusedum’s husband) went through a cancer scare about 2010 and it was such a remarkable event for him and her. They looked around, and even then, there wasn’t a group that was meeting, at least not with regularity, so in 2010 or ’11, they started the ministry, the support group.”

Sean Lee said that volunteer-based groups often “fizzle out” when people don’t need the group anymore, or move on. This happened to the first group.

With Sean Lee going for treatment to Kymera, he said he connected with many cancer patients and the staff helping them. That is where he got inspired to restart the group. In the interview, he pointed out that those who have been through cancer treatments, even though it might not be the same for everyone, we’re the only ones who could help one another through their journey. “Some people, they will be on chemotherapy for the rest of their life because that’s the only thing that keeps cancer at bay,” Sean Lee said. “For other people, they try, try and try and it won’t help and they just die from the disease. I am only three months past my last infusion; in three more months, I’ll have another CT scan and I’ll do this the next two years, to make sure it’s gone. My particular type of lymphoma sometimes has a chance to relapse, that’s still a danger that hangs over my head once in a while. For the most part I am very fortunate.

“We (Sean Lee and Cavin) want to be there for cancer patients who just got the word and for their loved ones and caregivers and families,” Sean Lee said. “They are just trying to get a grasp on how this is going to change (their) life. So when there are other cancer patients who went through that, they have a baseline. One of our founding members, Kim Cavin, she said, ‘When my girls found out, they had no idea on how to treat me, or they had no idea on how to support me.’”

Asked about her experience after the diagnosis, Cavin said, “I do have a good community around me; people that I know. People that I didn’t know who had cancer — like a friend would tell a friend — they’d reached out to me. It was a matter of getting networked in when I was diagnosed. What Sean and I both found, it makes the journey a lot easier because you have have somebody who can explain the next step on what’s going to happen. If you are going to have surgery, then they can tell you what you’ll experience. When you have to go through chemo, then they will give you an idea what the side effects were and how it goes. Then when you have to have radiation, they’ll give you the same rundown. It is kind of a play-by-play and having somebody there who has walked in those shoes before you makes the journey so much easier, because you got that. It’s so frightening anyway, it helps to ease your mind. Someone else has been through.”

There is another aspect for the group that Cavin says is important for Sean Lee and her. “My biggest hope is to help other people that go through cancer. Then again, the spouses, they are supporting us. Like Sean’s wife, she’s amazing and I have an amazing husband. They’ve been a great support, but who is there to support them when they get tired or when they get scared? Because the focus is so much on the cancer patient, that we forget about these people that we are leaning on. It’s probably harder for them because they are watching us suffer and they can’t do anything,” she said.

“We want to reach out to those as well, both aspects, the cancer, the family, the support, enrich their lives, give them hope and a purpose. It makes a big difference, like people who reached out to my children, that meant a lot, so when Sean got diagnosed, because it meant so much to them, they reached out to Sean’s kids. They were all grateful. They had known each other through grade school, but it is nice to have somebody (say), ‘If you need me I’m here,’” Cavin said.

Brenda Lee was available for an interview as well to give her view as a spouse and caregiver about the group. “Every cancer journey is unique to itself,” she said. “There is not one that is just like the other, for the caregiver that’s also true. It’s hard, you sort of think you have an idea what to expect and what your journey is going to look like, but also, for the caregiver, you have to start thinking about insurance, and you have to start thinking about logistics. I thought I will be the caregiver. He’ll be home more, so I will take care of him. It’s a lot more than that. Really, the person that has cancer, they have to be very focused and not in a bad way, but self-centered on their health. With Sean, he was focused on his health, to eat well. He was always low in certain areas so he had to eat certain foods.”

Brenda Lee said that some aspects were unexpected, “I just didn’t think it would be as draining emotionally and mentally as it was. I think because you are keeping all the other plates spinning in your life and you are trying to take care physically of the person who has cancer. You’re trying to, ours was really unique because it was all during the corona crisis. In some ways it made it easier, but in some ways it made it harder.”

Asked what was most important at the beginning after the diagnosis, Brenda Lee said, “Probably the number one thing that would have been great — and we did have someone after we started, sending us a letter having been a caregiver, have been on both sides. I think just to be able to talk to someone who has been on that journey, even if it wouldn’t look exactly like their journey, just to know, OK, here are some things you probably experience: You’re going to fight with the insurance for your loved one and you are going to be drained emotionally because you are seeing him going through a hard time, and just that in itself is hard. I remember once, I was sitting in the chair and Sean was laying in the bed and it was not quite halfway through his infusions, but I just thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to make supper. But I just don’t know what to make.’ I thought, maybe I’ll just get something to eat out. Then I thought, I hate to spend the money, but then I was like, I shouldn’t do that because it has to be nutritious for Sean. I remember I just sat there for two hours and hadn’t done anything because you’re just drained. Before it all started, I thought it’s easy, you’re just going on with your life. But the best way to say it, it engulfs your entire life.”

Brenda Lee said that her experience had changed her perspective on giving and receiving help. “I think the Lord showed us, this is the time, let other people help you,” she said. Friends stepped up and started helping without saying, “Call me if you need help.”

Brenda Lee said that she is going to put together a list for cancer patients to give to friends and family members on how to support them. Something as simple as a text to let them know that somebody cares. “It takes only two minutes to let them know you are thinking about them,” she said, “All the way down to: If you are able, send some money to them because it is financially draining. I think from now on — not with every single person who has cancer — Sean and I are going to try to send money to some who we select to.”

The Lees were fortunate to have had a cancer policy added to their health insurance. “We thought, it’s probably a waste of money, but it sure helped, Brenda Lee said. “We had tons of people who did so many wonderful things, some very generous people. We got a lot more support than other people get. There is a guy that was going through cancer, he had no family in town, he probably didn’t have a big network of friends. There are so many people like that.

“We’re hoping through this (the group), we can be that support network for them in a small way. Maybe they just moved here and don’t have many friends, or they don’t have any family and it’s just them. Hopefully, we can be at least an emotional support for them and help them with some things.”

Cavin said her family received support from friends, and her faith helped. “Having faith changes your outlook on the cancer, and having people as a support group also changes your outlook because it gives you hope.”

Cavin said that with her having breast cancer, new technology could pinpoint the reason to her having one broken chromosome, which was diagnosed in Albuquerque. She said that she had contacted her family to get tested, because it would qualify her for early tests and to have mammograms more often.

“The one thing I would like to share is that everybody should really be tested more often. I had a mammogram last year — about two months later, I found a lump. I was with my primary doctor and I mentioned it to him and he said, ‘You need to get back in and get checked.’ I got back and got checked and that’s when they did an ultrasound and mammogram and found it.

“I am not saying it was not there, but maybe they didn’t see it (two months earlier), but you need to just be really conscious and know your body and do self exams. To your readers, if they find out that they have cancer, they really need to reach out and find someone that’s walked the journey so they can walk with them on their journey. That was a thing that alleviated most of my anxiety. If you reach out to someone who walked before you, they can soften the blow in telling you what’s going to happen. It just makes it easier if you know what’s coming,” Cavin said.

Asked about the specifics of the new group Cancer with Grace, Sean Lee said, “It is a support group, not doctor led. There are three things that are important to us. Number 1 is emotional support. When people get this disease, they have no idea how it’s going to end. There are so many questions they have and it’s largely so there are so many types of cancer and so many types of cancer treatments.

“Number 2: Real hands-on support. We want to have the webpage at Grace to point people to resources that they can call, or links for information. They can point their web browser to Roswell Grace, Cancer with Grace, we want to be that repository of links and information.

“The third thing we want to offer is opportunities for doctors and oncology nurses to come and talk about various aspects of care. There might be some things I benefited from was nutrition and so it’s a maze. What do you do when you don’t feel well? What kind of food should you eat? What kind of food should you avoid? What kind of things do you drink? What kind of things should you stay away from? It’s a mess and for somebody to come in and hear from a nutritionist or particular oncological nutritionist or specialist that would be fantastic. I wished my doctor here in town would be able to come in and talk about advances in treatment.

In addition to the three points is a spiritual course. The group will be part of the ministry, however, everybody will be welcome, Sean Lee said.

“I found a lot of meaning in life and suffering and affliction because of this. And I say it in my blog and I say it again, I account my experiences going through cancer as a gift and I am grateful to God for it. I wouldn’t have chosen it,” he said and laughed.

Sean Lee said that due to the pandemic the bi-weekly meetings will be in person with mask and social distancing. If there is a larger interest, the groups can be divided up and there may be virtual meetings in the future.

“For right now, we are going to meet every other week, because we are kind of in the blind formative stages and we want to get people to know where we are and who we are,” Sean Lee said.

“We sincerely believe that every cancer patient and their families and caregivers deserve to have some modicum of support. I love this phrase, ‘We can’t fill everyone’s cup, but we can empty our own.’ That’s what we are going to try to do, empty our own cup of knowledge, if it is courage, if it is cheer, if it’s prayer, that’s what we’ll do and we just don’t feel like it’s right that people should have to go through this alone,” Sean Lee said.

Grace Community Church is located at 935 W. Mescalero Road. For more information, visit roswellgrace.com/cancer-with-grace or call 575-623-5438.