The phrase “living with cancer” is a lot easier said than done for many of those struggling to find light through their illness. Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Mercer County, in partnership with the Hunterdon & Mercer Regional Chronic Disease Coalition and the Elixir Fund, is offering a free highly-acclaimed Cancer Thriving & Surviving series to Mercer county residents.

The 6-week series will be administered by Michelle Brill, Family & Community Health Sciences Educator at Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Mercer county, along with co-facilitators, both Bonnie Petrauskas, Regional Outreach Coordinator, Monica Torres, Community Health Worker of the Hunterdon-Mercer Chronic Disease Coalition, and Meg McQuarrie, Executive Director the Elixir Fund. Together, the team will provide a source of peer support, information and strength between April 7 and May 12 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Originally developed at Stanford University as a chronic disease self management program, the Cancer Thriving & Surviving series offers individuals battling (or those who are impacted by someone battling) cancer an outlook on how to better manage the challenges associated with this aggressive illness.

“We use brainstorming and problem solving techniques, decision making skills, very evidence based, impactful tools for people to address all of those challenges of understanding their interrelatedness,” said Brill. “People really leave feeling like they have some control over their lives – that they have some skills to deal with their emotions, to know how to ask for help, to make difficult decisions and to live a higher quality of life.”

Over the course of the program, the group combats the challenges preventing them from thriving through their illness. The obstacles are divided into eight primary categories: cancer and the effects of treatment; problems sleeping; pain; stress/anxiety; living with uncertainty; difficult emotions/depression; body changes; and fatigue. Each attendee is also given “homework” in the form of an action plan to complete outside of the session hours.

“The key to the program is that every week, at the end of the session, the participants create an action plan, and it’s very specific,” said Brill. “The following week, they come back and report how we did with our action plan. So, there’s always this follow up, this continuity.”

She continued, “It’s this evolving process, where we’re putting thoughts to action, and that’s very empowering.”

Having run this series a number of times in the past at locations including Trenton senior centers and the Hamilton YMCA, Brill can attest to the enlightenment the Cancer Thriving & Surviving series brings to the community.

She said, “For an adult to come and commit to six weeks, and we do have dropouts, but for those that continue, they leave feeling just much better and much more informed, and just more able to to live their life and know that there’s a life to be lived.”

In a 2019 session of the series, two elderly women attending the 6-week session (who remain anonymous for privacy reasons) spoke of their experience in the class. One said, “I realize how important it is to talk about these things through the brainstorming activities…things that you usually keep inside.” The other said, “Action plans give you a sense of purpose.”

After seeing the success of the Cancer Thriving & Surviving series, Brill and her co-facilitators are looking forward to helping, yet again, another group of survivors regain control of their life, and thrive while doing so.

“The disease doesn’t define them,” said Brill.  “They can take over their life; they can make decisions and look at their lifestyle behaviors, and know that they can better themselves.”

If you would like to take part in this 6-week series, call Hunterdon Healthcare to register at 908-237-2328. For further information, contact Michelle Brill at brill@njaes.rutgers.edu.