'Telling your own story is helpful': Men's Networking Group for those affected by cancer offers support without judgment

Is time on my side or working against me? Can I buy some more of it by arming myself with helpful information and being around positive people facing the same challenge?

Those thoughts race through the minds of people when getting a cancer diagnosis from a physician. Or for those caring for a spouse or child getting that bad news.

I never participated in any group when dealing with bladder cancer six years ago, but it does give me a better understanding of the power of such networking. It takes a lot of courage to push the topic to the forefront and some strong character and commitment to make it a group with some staying power.

Bo Smith of Geneva and Todd Claxton of Hinckley fall into that category after starting the Men's Networking Group at Northwestern Medicine Living Well Cancer Resource Center this year to provide an outlet for men to share their experiences with cancer.

Smith is a prostate cancer survivor, and Claxton was a caregiver to his wife through her cancer treatment before her ultimate passing.

For years, men dealing with cancer met for breakfast meetings at Living Well, but the COVID pandemic brought those to a halt. Smith and Claxton hit the restart button to form the new networking group, which meets monthly at 6:30 p.m. on the fourth Monday of the month at the Living Well centers in Warrenville on even months and in Geneva on odd months.

"A key thing to know is the name Men's Networking Group was chosen because men can be reluctant to attend support groups," Smith said. "We guys are notorious for this and for being hesitant to see doctors regularly. That can lead to waiting too long, bringing worse prognoses and premature deaths.

"So, a support group is truly what it is," he added.

Their goal for the group, most often a small gathering of about seven men and the facilitators, is to provide a space to express feelings and emotions without judgment - and give some hope for the future. Through Living Well, the classes are free and open to any men who want to join.

"The most meaningful benefit is knowing you're in a place with other guys who've been there, whether they've experienced it themselves or have been a caregiver," Smith said, noting that he and Claxton use the words "affected by cancer" because it always touches more than one person.

It's an important process, Claxton said, to share experiences and gain knowledge from others.

"Getting validation that how you're feeling - frustrated, scared, angry, worried, confused, overwhelmed - is OK and, in fact, perfectly normal," Claxton noted. "Others have felt the same way, too."

It all helps a patient navigate his challenges when confronting cancer, Claxton added. "Telling your own story is also helpful because each time you tell it, you are also helping yourself come to grips with the reality of your situation and to find a path forward."

Claxton and his late wife Shelly have long supported Living Well and its programs and help for cancer patients.

"Early on, we were always willing to share our story with others who were dealing with cancer," Claxton said. "We truly believe that if by sharing our story with others, we can make someone else's journey/battle with cancer the tiniest bit easier or better, then we've made something good out of a very bad thing that happened to us.

"Some cancer journeys do not have a happy ending, but many, many do," he added. "Having people who have survived cancer share their experiences gives great hope to those who are early on in their journey." No one is qualified to give medical advice at the group meetings, but sharing stories allows benefits and important information for those who may be encountering any form of cancer.

Dennis Coleman has come back as a backup facilitator after being involved in leading the Living Well men's group years ago. His experience helps continue a process in which patients who attend with most any type of cancer will find others in the group who can relate.

Angela McCrum, director of Northwestern Medicine Living Well Cancer Resources, emphasized the importance of programs like the Men's Networking Group.

"A cancer diagnosis can feel isolating, and Bo and Todd have built a space that breaks down that barrier," McCrum said in a Northwestern Medicine news release. "Groups like this that are focused on men's mental health are rare, and to offer it for free makes it more accessible to those who need it."

As much as anything, the group sessions provide a positive mental boost and relieve stress.

"When you're in the room, and you hear another guy's story who has been through what you're going through, you finally have someone you can talk to who understands besides your doctor and perhaps a spouse or partner," Smith noted.

The next group meeting is Monday, Nov. 27, at Living Well in Geneva.

Smith shared a text he received from a group participant last week. He feels it sums up the meetings well: "I believed that these meetings wouldn't do me any good, but I was wrong. I'd like to continue. I believe that they're doing me some good. Thank you."

Not a geologist

Apparently, the study of rocks - or even knowing certain types when seeing them - is not my strong suit.

Still, most people should be able to spot limestone when they see it. For me, it's more like thinking I saw it.

Such is the case in incorrectly referring to stone along a portion of the east side of the Fox River riverbank in St. Charles as limestone. I did so in last week's column about the River Corridor Foundation's plans to rebuild the east bank of the river from Illinois Street south to the pedestrian bridge.

I have since been corrected that it isn't limestone holding form on that embankment. "It's broken concrete slabs from city construction projects at that time," foundation member John Rabchuk said.

Actually, I was glad to hear that. It means the foundation's project would remove those unappealing slabs and replace them with natural stone boulders and limestone, making it appear like the west side embankment by the Brownstone townhouses.

Now that I know the difference, the current stones really do look like concrete slabs rather than what I believed were simply worn-out limestone formations.

Here's the real kicker. I somewhat recall taking a geology class in college as an elective to learn about the different layers of the earth's surface.

Old concrete slabs from St. Charles construction projects were not part of those lessons.

They're controlled burns

The air might seem smoky in the next month, and it won't be because of forest fires in Canada this time.

The Kane County Forest Preserve will start its controlled burn season at more than 50 forest preserves in the county.

It's time for the prairies, woodlands and wetlands to have their ecological health restored for the warm weather months that start in the spring.

This process isn't just a hit-or-miss proposition. The district notes that before a controlled burn, trained staff survey the preserve to create a plan that includes monitoring the weather to limit the chance of smoke blowing toward homes and roads.

Nearby residents and city authorities are also informed through a letter from the district.

Facilitator Bo Smith of Geneva and (forefront) participant Tony Sisto of St. Charles listen to others in a Men's Networking Group session. Smith is a prostate cancer survivor and Sisto shares stories about overcoming his colon cancer, first diagnosed in 2004. Courtesy of Northwestern Medicine
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