Tag Archives: cancer

Cancer and community

By Jeffrey Betcher

Maybe there should be a more uplifting title to this article, not just because it might be gentler on you, dear reader, but also because there is so much about “cancer and community” that is positive.

It’s a strange way to start a sentence, but…  The good thing about dying is how it can make a person feel more alive than ever, a phenomenon that can extend to the family, friends and community of the person dying.  Most of my relationships are healthier as a result, just as the hole my death will leave in my community has clarified.

When you’re sick, it’s hard to remember this:

Death isn’t just about the dying. It’s also about those left behind.  I’ll be pissed at myself enough to come back for a do-over if my friends and neighbors are shocked to learn of my death. Ideally, I will have included them in my journey so that whatever beauty there might be in my passing will help balance the grief.

In past updates about my own illness and how it relates to the community of place I love so much, I’ve talked about how those living in traditionally under-served communities like Bayview can be at higher risk for all sorts of diseases than those living in more affluent places.  That’s something communities can help address, primarily through education and advocacy.  More

I’ve also talked about how my neighbors have helped me in ways that only neighbors can, and how being part of a local community improves my odds. Wherever you live, when it comes to being sick, the closest support is next door if not in the house with you.  Clearly, being part of a community comes with benefits for the sick person.  More

We’ve lost two more neighbors to cancer here on my block of Bayview in just the past couple of months. One of them a relatively young long-term resident, something that may speak to the incidence of cancer rates here.  The community response as I’ve observed it speaks to the value of social networks to getting through tough times. While it may be impossible to understand loss suffered by others, folks in Bayview seem to understand that acknowledging it and reminding those in grief that they are not alone makes a difference.

Connecting with the people and physical environment where we live takes some effort. But I believe it’s important. A sense of community contributes to a better life for even the healthiest neighbors. And when a community member dies, the community context helps make sense of the loss.

I’ve come to think that a person with a life-threatening illness or injury has a unique role to play in their community that goes beyond being the receiver of help from neighbors.  Active awareness of death, something we will all grapple with one day, can be depressing. But it can also make each day more valuable.  Every word and act can be more compassionate, intentional and responsible.

Trust me on this: get a terminal diagnosis, expect to change in practical ways. No one could blame you if you lowered the blinds, powered-down your phone and burrowed under the covers. On the other hand, you could find yourself picking up litter in the SuperSave parking lot, waving at the person across the street who you had been angry at for some reason you can’t quite recall, seeing beauty in precisely those things that had made your life less beautiful the day before your diagnosis….

Folks have told me that by witnessing my journey (and by my willingness to share it) they are living life more fully and dealing with their fears more successfully. It seems that I am contributing to my community in a new way these days: by living with death, openly. Sometimes, building community is as easy as breathing.

Get a recent update on Jeffrey’s health and cancer treatment, and a whole lot more, by going to CaringBridge.org and searching on his name.

Jeffrey’s cancer and community journey

Mango Baby-eating panda by Rhonda Winter
Mango Baby-eating panda by Rhonda Winter

Jeffrey Betcher

The further from home my cancer journey takes me, the more I land right back at the gardens in Bayview.

While visiting Lex in Florida last week, I tried to sketch a panda which turned out no better than if a panda itself had done it.  When I returned home, a letter from Rhonda Winter, Latona Garden co-founder and now German resident, was in my mailbox.  It was exactly what I had pictured in my meditations about a mythical animal keen to eat a mango sized tumor stuck up my butt.

(Visit www.caringbridge/jeffreybetcher for gory (gorier) details. Point is, this daily sort of community synchronicity happens all the time.  It’s like dependable magic.

The connections between my unwieldy journey with cancer and the place I live, people I live near and others who have come through my life by way of the gardens emerge every day.

The experience so many have, that Bayview Hunters Point’s environmental and social history have bequeathed chronic and sometimes terminal health problems, has roots in reality. At the same time, I hope the internal strength of the social and cultural fabric here serves to make us healthier: a sort of karmic balance between adversity and folks coming together because life is just easier and more joyful that way.

In my reading about cancer and treatment, I’ve stumbled on serious studies and anecdotal evidence that social connections, like those that form around positive activities, can prevent disease and dramatically help those dealing with it.

Just across the Bay, in Alameda, a study by Peggy Reynolds and George Kaplan makes a case that people with the fewest social ties were three times more likely to die over a nine-year period than those who reported the most social ties. I’m not sure what that means about my getting this cancer, but it sure makes me value my neighbors as I deal with it.

And it makes me happy to share a bit of promising news with you, my neighbor near or far.  After a September diagnosis of a Stage IV “incurable” cancer, I’ve just met with researchers at UCSF Mission Bay who are conducting a clinical trial that simply didn’t exist that short time ago.  I’m not in the study yet, and there’s no guarantee (in life or cancer), but it’s hopeful.

For those of you who don’t know, Mission Bay is just up 3rd Street from where I live at Quesada Gardens, and includes a premiere cancer hospital that opened just in time to serve little ole me.  I’m privileged, and I’m grateful to be part of a caring community that is beautifully unavoidable.

Thanksgiving and cancer in Bayview

Jeffrey Betcher

Almost immediately after sending out word at the bottom of the last Bayview Footprints’ edition that I had received a challenging diagnosis, I heard from sympathetic neighbors facing similar struggles. Other neighbors offered to help with rides, dropped off bread and treats, ordered healing juices, delivered the biggest “Get Well” card I’ve seen, and … well … it just keeps coming. Color me truly grateful this Thanksgiving.

Biggest “Get Well” care EVER! Photo: Patti Tuori

Equally moving to me has been the fact that so many Quesada Gardens leaders have (re)committed to the work that we have done together, alongside hundreds of other contributors since 2003, ensuring grassroots community building will remain a force in the rapidly-changing Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood.

The last edition of Bayview Footprints Local News ended with a question mark about the newsletter’s future. It’s beautiful to me that just a month later, in our inboxes, is yet another free community-created issue of Footprints. I give thanks to Liz, Wei Ming, Beth, Craig, Shane, Linda, Hydra, Eric, Joel and Mary, John and … well … my Bayview neighbors!

The new voices and workers behind Bayview Footprints will need help.

I hope you’ll send Liz content from time to time: a photograph about life in the neighborhood, or a bit of text she can use along with your name. Not a press release or PDF event flyer, but something that will give readers a glimpse at the special place and its people we call “Bayview” that they can’t get elsewhere.

Please ask your neighbors to sign up for Bayview Footprints online. Although we reach thousands of readers, about 10% of Bayview’s population, that leaves a lot of folks out when it comes to all the good stuff in the neighborhood.

Contact our leaders: Shane about volunteering in the gardens, Joel and Mary about helping out at Bridgeview, Craig about contributing to social media, and Wei Ming about general organizing. And since I’m not shy about these things: our online costs alone are about $100 a month and we’re all volunteers. Got a couple bucks?

I expect to be contributing Footprints’ content between trips to UCSF’s Cancer Center. For now, here’s an update about cancer in my corner of Bayview: 1) Thanksgiving is more meaningful than ever, 2) Chemo starts on Monday (Yup, I have a ride), and 3) LOTS OF NEIGHBORS HAVE CANCER!

About that last bit, the high incidence of cancer in the neighborhood often seems like our really-badly-kept dirty not-so-little secret. Word got out around the time the old power plant was demolished and the Shipyard cleanup really got underway as links between the environment and health were explored. (Reminder to neighborhood women, especially black women: get that mammogram done. Guys, colonoscopies are not the end of the world.)

A professional should do the math, but when I told a friend in the public health field that I counted eight people on just my side of the Quesada Gardens’ block who have had cancer in recent years, she said that it sounded like “a cluster.” People like Judith, Tom, Tony, Na’im who have passed, and others like Linda and me living with the disease.

I am in a relatively low-risk category, yet the cancer I have is late-stage and aggressive. For you, prevention and early detection may be lifesavers. Eat well. Be physically active. Know the signs of cancer, and see a doctor if you spot those symptoms.

As a community, we have work left to do. Neighbors will be needing neighbors, and Bayview will become a healthy and socially-just place to live only if we insist on it.

I’m an open (digital) book. If you can stomach more wild theories and details about my cancer and treatment journey, see the online journal on CaringBridge [dot] org. Fair warning: you’ll be exposed to butt zombies, a mango baby and a belly butthole. Be strong, or be 12 years old.

I usually host Thanksgiving at my place. This year I didn’t know if I’d be up to it or if friends would want to come to a dinner that might be emotional. But you can’t cancel life, not with my friends around. As it turned out, the mood was light, and familiar faces and foods around the table reminded me that, if I’m healthy another half a day or half a century, I’m blessed.

Be well, neighbors, and ponder some numbers:

In the mid-1990s, a health department study found that 41 percent of black women with breast cancer were under age 50. For the City at large, the rate was 22 percent of women in that age group. High rates of cervical cancer were found, too!

An often quoted but aging study showed that “residents of San Francisco’s Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood have a life expectancy on average 14 years less than their counterparts on Russian Hill.” Is life expectancy longer now?