By Steve Blanchard - October 11, 2020
Tracy Hollis is quick to point out that book clubs are kind of her thing.
So, it came naturally to the 62-year-old St. Petersburg resident to suggest a book club element to the metastatic breast cancer support system already in place at Moffitt Cancer Center, where she’s a patient.
“It occurred to me that there are a lot of people who maybe can’t get out as well during treatment, especially during COVID, so they may not have a lot of time to get together,” said Hollis, who learned she had stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in 2016. “A book club gives us another way to share that’s not so intense on individual people. It’s more of a supplement and another activity to help keep your head in the game.”
The metastatic breast cancer book club works much like any other. The group chooses a book to read and then meets, virtually these days, to discuss. But in this club, every reader is in a similar fight and every book has a poignant, empowering message highlighting a female perspective.
“One of my favorite books is ‘Comfortable with Uncertainty’ by Pema Chödrön,” said Jenn Dillard, 48, who was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in early 2019. “In every single one of her books it feels like she’s writing for me personally. This one is all about how to be comfortable with the unknown. That resonates with me and I think with the rest of the group.”
The unknown is certainly something with which Hollis is familiar. Her cancer journey began in 2000, when she was told she had stage 3B breast cancer and eventually had a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. She said the intense treatment almost killed her, but eventually doctors told her she was cancer free. However, in 2016, she came down with double pneumonia and an ER doctor told her that she had cancer “all over” her lungs. Her breast cancer was back and had metastasized.
It’s a story that is familiar to every metastatic breast cancer patient, Hollis said, and helped fuel the creation of the book club, which began in early 2020 and adopted virtual meetings via Zoom in June.
Despite going virtual, the mission of the group remains the same: to connect women living with a form of breast cancer that will always be a part of their lives.
Dillard says it is a form of “collective resilience,” a term she learned in one of the group’s favorite books, “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy” by Sheryl Sandberg.
“A lot of people like us like to read books and educate ourselves about our condition,” Hollis said. “We do research plus read books that provide some level of support. By doing this together it’s all about resilience, hope, love and courage.”
The virtual book club meetings are a big plus for Marilyn Masick, 75, who lives two hours from Tampa and can’t always make it to in-person meetings outside of her scheduled appointments at Moffitt. Masick learned she had triple negative breast cancer in January 2017, after getting a mammogram. By June of 2019, her cancer had entered her right lung and she was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
The trauma of such a discovery is something every woman with this diagnosis experiences, Masick said, which is why her involvement in a book club that focuses on empowerment and overcoming trauma is so important to her.
“My favorite book we’ve read so far is ‘Option B,’ ” Masick said. “It’s written by a woman who lost her husband in a tragic exercise room accident and how she dealt with that sudden loss. The link there is that we all must deal with the drama that we experience. This year, with COVID, it’s been even more difficult.”
Not every book focuses on cancer, but each fuels the conversations and discussions that support the group.
“These books and these stories serve as a jumping off point, a way to segue for many wonderful discussions,” Dillard said. “These books give us a foundation and a platform to go around and talk about many different things. It’s been wonderful.”
The women look at the book club as another tool in a virtual toolbox that helps them cope with their diagnosis while offering — and receiving — encouragement from women in similar situations. It serves as a complement to other tools Moffitt offers, including yoga classes, the Magnolia Hair Salon, nutritional groups and writing classes.
The metastatic breast cancer support group even has a text thread that is used outside of the book club.
“This lets us provide emotional support to each other any time it is needed,” Masick said.
Each of these resources, including the book club, are part of a greater arsenal.
“Clearly, we need to keep our minds off the journey as much as we can and focus on each moment we’re in,” Masick said.