Nothing about cancer is easy, and Roz Kleban understands that. Ms. Kleban has been a social worker in the Breast Medicine Service at MSK for 30 years, trying to make the lives of those with cancer a little less stressful.
“I see patients individually at all points along the disease continuum. This includes those who are newly diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer all the way to those who are newly diagnosed or rediagnosed with metastatic disease,” she says. “I help people and their families cope with a wide range of issues that come up during diagnosis, treatment, and more.”
One specific way she helps patients is by leading support groups. We spoke with Ms. Kleban to learn more about what these groups can offer.
How many breast cancer support groups are there at MSK?
We have three groups of about five to 15 people each. One is for people diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, and it runs every week. Then we have two metastatic groups. Those groups meet every other week. One is for young women with metastatic disease, the other for older women. The age cutoff is very, very fluid. In the younger group, I’d like people to be up to age 40 or 45. But I’ve come across somebody who is over 50 and has small children. In terms of her lifestyle and development, she should probably meet with the younger group.
What particular challenges do women with metastatic breast cancer face?
These people are constantly aware that their future has been cut short. There are some different issues facing a 33-year-old compared with a 70-year-old, but the overall challenge is the same.
One of the most magnificent things for me is to witness these women find enjoyment and fulfillment and live good, full lives. I’m able to watch wonderful, accomplished people who know that they’re facing a limited life span and yet are able to muster the emotional strength and courage to go on and to keep their families going. They are able to be devoted to the things and people around them and to survive in a meaningful way.
How does a support group help facilitate that?
One of the biggest topics of discussion in all of the metastatic groups, breast cancer and otherwise, is how the people around you react. Some people are concerned or interested but intrusive. Others are made so uncomfortable by the subject, they never inquire about it. Others hold on to the theory that you have to have a positive attitude and you’ll be fine.
The only people who know exactly what it’s like is other people who are going through it. For example, let’s take a 35-year-old woman. She doesn’t know anybody in her circle who has had or knows anything about a major illness. She feels alone and vulnerable. She’s the only one. She comes into a group and sees four other magnificent, beautiful young women, and she’s no longer alone. Her fears, her terrors — all of it is validated by the other women.
When an outside person says, “Hey, you can do it. You’re OK,” what do they know? But when another woman who has been on chemotherapy for three years can say, “Look, I just got back from Fiji. You can do it. You can enjoy it,” that’s very meaningful.
How can MSK help a woman with newly diagnosed metastatic disease who is considering joining a support group?
I first ask her what she thinks she can get out of speaking to other people. When a woman is hesitant, I’ll try to match her up with another person similar in age and circumstances so they can speak individually. That way, if she does join our group, she already knows someone.
If she decides not to join, she can see someone in the counseling center, in psychiatry, or a social worker instead. As social workers, we add comfort and solace, help people grow their strengths, and make it all feel a little more doable.