Cancer caregiver finds support, acceptance in online support group

Shelly Ward is a trailblazer. As one of only a few female airplane pilots with the U.S. Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration, she conducts aerial surveillance that helps dismantle drug trafficking rings and brings criminals to justice. “My job is never dull,” she says. “I’ve got to be on my game at all times. I can’t afford to become rattled.” But when Shelly’s husband, Kerrick, received a rare pancreatic cancer diagnosis last month after overcoming non-Hodgkin lymphoma four years ago, she began to feel overwhelmed. “We law enforcement types keep a stiff upper lip. We’re not used to asking for help,” she says, “but I knew I needed to talk with someone.” Contrary to her nature, Shelly signed up for a virtual support group for caregivers of cancer patients. Facilitated by MD Anderson’s social work counselors, the group began meeting online during the coronavirus pandemic, as MD Anderson took steps to protect its patients, caregivers and workforce members from COVID-19. “The pandemic presented an opportunity to transition our support groups from an in-person to a virtual format,” says Teresa Van Oort, clinical program manager for Social Work. “MD Anderson’s is leading the way by offering one of the broadest support group selections in the country right now.” Members log onto their computers twice a week to join virtual sessions led by a social work counselor. Together, they discuss the emotions involved in caring for someone with cancer, including fear, sadness, financial stress, physical exhaustion and guilt. “All the members in the group are on the same journey – they understand,” says Van Oort. Initial cancer diagnosis: Burkitt lymphoma Shelly,...