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‘People are missing their hugs’: Breast cancer support groups adapt to virtual meetings

Amanda Parrish
Middletown Transcript

On March 11, breast cancer survivors in Middletown were leaving their support group that met monthly at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. Little did they know, this would be the last time they would meet in person for months to come.

Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition’s Middletown group, Breast Cancer Conversations, is one of the many groups and organizations forced to move online due the pandemic. Lois Wilkinson, who leads the group, said the meetings have been held on Zoom since April.

“Obviously when everything closed, we weren't able to have our meetings in person,” she said. “The first month or two, we were checking in with everybody, and seeing how they were making out with COVID and just life in general, as well as their cancer concerns.”

Although it was not as intimate to have meetings through a computer screen, there were positives that came of the group moving online. Wilkinson expanded it for survivors in Kent County and Wilmington where there weren’t support groups.

“Because we are on Zoom, it doesn't matter where the heck you live,” she said. “We virtually opened it up to the whole state. Anyone who wants to join, can join.”

There is a conversation group based in Sussex County, but they chose not to merge with the Middletown group.

Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition survivors walk in a 2019 parade.

When Breast Cancer Conversations opened up statewide, Wilkinson said there wasn’t a huge change in turnout, but people also had more options because all of their groups and activities opened statewide.

The African American group My Sister’s Keeper, Survivorship Happy Hour, Forever Fighters, Nurture with Nature, Young Survivors in Action and other special groups have been moved online.

“It's still a conversation. They get to meet each other and see what they are going through treatment-wise, but we also do something fun,” Wilkinson said. “We have so many more programs now that are open to everybody statewide, so our numbers are kind of spread out. Instead of having one group [for the region], now we have multiple groups.”

DBCC Nurture with Nature group members have participated in photography challenges during the pandemic. Submitted photos are compiled into a collage and shared on Facebook.

The DBCC leader said these groups will be on Zoom for the foreseeable future because the women are considered high-risk, but she sees them continuing the virtual option for meetings.

“Once this COVID is over with and we are back to our normal, we will probably do both. I will have it in-person, but at the same time, we will be on Zoom,” she said. “We can Zoom people in who maybe are not feeling good.”

‘Missing their hugs’

People who are newly diagnosed with breast cancer like to come to these groups to talk about fears and get a hug from others dealing with the same problems. With meetings online, they are not getting this.

“When people come to a class, they might be newly diagnosed, and they come in, and they are sad, they are scared, and the first thing we do is give them a big hug. On Zoom, you can't really do it,” Wilkinson said. “I think that is the biggest thing with COVID right now. People are missing their hugs … I just wish I could be there for them to give them that big warm hug and let them know it's going to be okay.”

The number of new people getting involved with the DBCC groups is lower than normal, Wilkinson said. Doctors and surgeons were putting off mammograms and non-emergency surgeries through the spring when COVID first hit the U.S., so people were not diagnosed.

“People put their mammograms off until basically, May or June,” Wilkinson said. “Now people are getting surgeries, they are getting treatment, so the numbers are unfortunately going up again ... I am getting more and more calls everyday.”

Anyone interested in joining one of the groups can call Lois Wilkinson at 302-242-2895, and she can send a Zoom link to the meetings.

See our "Paint It All Pink" breast cancer awareness special section in this week's Middletown Transcript newspaper and on our website at middletowntranscript.com.