Friday, September 05, 2008

An Unwanted Journey: Day 1017: The Face of Social Support

This journey with cancer is as much about establishing and maintaining social support networks as it is about organizing a great medical team. Is that too obvious for words?

My wife is an excellent judge of the social networks in my life. When she asks about my day, I can tell that she is working through not only the physical symptoms - how tired, sore, or energized I am - but the experiences I've had with other people that can alleviate negative physical conditions or make them so much worse. She's good at this. In fact, when I blog about coming out of surgery while in ICU, wanting to see the face of my wife, it's not only because I genuinely enjoy just looking at her, it's also because her face wraps up what I mean when I talk about social support. I see her and I automatically feel girded and enabled.

It's like that with my sons as well. Their care and concern are genuine, readily apparent and unequivocal. Again, I derive energy just by looking at them and listening to them tell me stories about their day, the people they've met, the experiences they've had and the goals and dreams that are important to them.

I don't always have the daily boost of being with friends...sometimes I have to rely on the long-distance media of email and telephone. But those who are life-long friends are also a major part of my network, a truly significant piece of the puzzle. Shorter-term friends come from so many areas in my life - work, volunteer activities, neighbours, service providers. Again, the Blink phenomenon makes the experience of social support a palpable and virtually instantaneous experience. Even commiserating with acquaintances whose loved ones are experiencing or have experienced similar medical conditions contributes to the foundation of social well being.

And, of course, no matter how careful one is about social support, there are those occasions of negative influence, a chance encounter with someone who is pretentious or otherwise lacking a genuine centre of gravity, someone whose demeanour betrays a lack of respect, interest, or sympathy, or even someone just unable to provide even a moment of true empathy.

This is important to overall health. Some studies show how negative feelings of social well being correlate with malignant tumor growth. It's also interesting to me that there may be a difference between what is considered social support among men and women. Men may tend to appreciate straightforward information service as supportive, whereas women may need that service packaged in a more "relational" package.

But what is clear to me is that I need to listen to my wife's questions about my day. Her radar helps me attune to the positive and negative situations in my social support system. Sometimes, it's basic. "If it feels bad, don't waste time with that person." "If you leave an encounter with someone with your self esteem having taken a body blow, don't do that!"

"Yes, dear." She puts a smile on my face.

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