LAMAR COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - What started as a small group of women with breast cancer getting coffee together about eight years ago is now a support group offering strength and friendship to more than 40 people with many different types of cancer.
"Kim Aust and I were two of a group of five ladies that got together for coffee to discuss cancer," said Kerrie Barron, co-facilitator of the support group. "We all had a common bond, and unfortunately, it was cancer. We got together to just support one another and get information from one another."
Barron said it wasn't long before they realized there were others battling cancer in the greater Hattiesburg area who also needed that kind of camaraderie.
"We found out there were many more than five that needed support and needed help," Barron said. "About three years ago, Kim came up with the idea to open it up to all cancer survivors because there are not a lot of support groups in the area."
It was about three year ago when then-33-year-old mother of two Anunciata Schwebel was diagnosed with breast cancer after finding a lump during a self exam.
"I was at work, and I felt a tingling in my breast. I reached up and felt, and I felt this hard, concrete, smooth knot that was never there before," Schwebel said. "Two weeks went by, and I was having lunch with a friend. She's a nurse, and it came up in conversation. She was like 'well, let me feel it.' So she felt it, and she immediately was very concerned and said 'you need to go get this checked. It wouldn't hurt, just go get it checked.'"
Schwebel called her OBGYN for an appointment, and had a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy the next day.
"Two days later, I get a phone call, and I have a two centimeter tumor invasive ductal carcinoma," Schwebel said. "I remember getting the phone call. I just remember him saying 'it's cancer.' My husband just wrapped his arms around me and held me real tight, and I cried. And I screamed. And I just fell apart. And mama's don't fall apart like that."
Schwebel said the six rounds of chemotherapy treatments, 17 targeted therapy injections and five surgeries impacted not only her health, but her children as well.
"They got me up every morning," Schwebel said. "I mean, I had to be strong for them. I'd try to keep it normal for them when I was sick, and it was hard for them. It was really hard to tell them because even though they were 8 and 10 at the time, I remember telling my son. He was 10, and I said the word 'cancer,' and he just fell to pieces. I mean because everybody we know it seems like they die. I had to be strong for them, and I was strong. I was strong a lot, and they really didn't get to see me too bad off. If I was really sick I would just close the door. They just couldn't handle it. My little girl, she was 8, and she was such a big helper. She knew I was sick. I lost my hair, and they didn't care. They just kept on with it. My little girl, she was in second grade, and it was hero week (at school) or something. You had to dress like your hero, so she wrapped her head in a scarf and put one of my 'team Nunci' shirts on. And she went to school like that. And it just made my hearts so great because she thought I was her hero."
Barron said, "Obviously fear is the biggest factor in being diagnosed with cancer."
Schwebel said, "So many things are going through your mind. When you hear that word 'cancer,' you just automatically think death."
Both women say being able to speak with others who understand that fear firsthand and can share ways to combat it is a big benefit of the support group.
"Oh I can't imagine not being able to have someone to talk to who had been there, which now, I have people call me at two in the morning," Barron said. "Our group has two main purposes we like to say. We come to gain information and knowledge and wisdom and experience from other people who have been where we are, and we also come as place to cry and vent and just tell your story."
Schwebel said, "They understood exactly what I was going through. I mean, I walked in the first day to the meeting, and I think I cried most of the meeting. I don't think anyone else got to talk, so I hope no one else had any kind of major thing going on because I took up the whole meeting. They were just so supportive, and they hugged me. They all said 'We've been there. We've done that. It's going to go by so fast.' And I didn't believe them, but it did. Cancer has definitely changed me inside and out. I don't look the same. I look at life differently. I have gained a lot of courage, and I have a whole outlook on life. I have gained an unbreakable friendship with all these women that have gone through cancer before me and with me and after me. I love every single one of them, and I don't know how I could get through it without them."
Schwebel is now in remission, but said the group's support is still an essential part of her life.
"Once you have cancer, I mean, you don't have to live in fear, but everything that out of the ordinary, any pain that you have, you think it could be…'is it back?'" Schwebel said. "That is my greatest fear, but you just have to rely on your faith and rely on the doctors that it's not going to come back and live a happy life."
Barron is 10 years cancer free and said she still has the same concerns.
"I'm not going to lie, you still have the times where every bump and lump and anything that's not right on your body, you panic because you're a cancer survivor," Barron said. "That's one of the things we talk about in the group as well."
No matter what they're talking about, Barron is just happy they're talking.
"That's what's so important because that's how you become an encourager," she said. "You can share your story with someone else who can gain from it. It's exciting that you get to a point that you don't feel so needy. That you actually have the expertise to share with someone else, and that you can say, 'Hey it gets better. I'm on the other side now, and I'm not as scared and I'm not as weak and I'm not as sick as I was.'"
Three years after her diagnosis, Schwebel is learning to do the same.
"It will never be normal again," she said. "It's taken away so much. I've gained a lot from cancer, good things, but I've lost a lot. I'm in a total mental pause at 33. I mean, that's just not normal. It sucks that I can never have kids again. My relationship with my husband, it has an impact on that. My body is totally different, and it's very, very hard for me to accept that my body is different. Bathing suits don't look right. Tops don't look right. I could say it's unfair, but it's life. I'm here, and I get to see my kids. But cancer did, it did. It took away that, and I'm different. But my husband loves me for who I am and what's inside of me, not what's on the outside, and I have to keep remembering that. It's hard to see other 30-year-old women in their bathing suits, and they look great. I have scars all over me. Scars from my drainage tubes and scars all over my chest. It's just part of it, but I'm still happy. I'm still living life. It's not slowing me down any."
The support group meets at 6 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month at Temple Baptist Church, but Barron said those attending do not need to be church members. Meetings are open to both those with cancer and their caregivers.