Tea Time In Jamaica Plain
A few months into her new job as a cancer navigator at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Christina Ho started to notice something about the Chinese women she was working with, guiding them through diagnosis, treatment and into survivorship.
"When I met my patients in the clinic and they saw each other in the waiting area, it seemed to me that they wanted to connect to each other, but they didn't have any chance," said Ho.
It was just a feeling, but Ho decided to follow through and ask her patients if they might like to form a social networking group to meet and talk about their cancer. Ho recalls they said, "okay, we would like to try."
She first proposed finding a space for the group to meet in Chinatown at South Cove Community Health Center, but the women rejected the idea. South Cove is where they receive their health care, where they had been diagnosed. Ho then suggested finding space where she works at BIDMC. That idea too was rejected. BIDMC was where the women had received their cancer treatment.
Next Ho reached out to the American Cancer Society's AstraZeneca Hope Lodge. Located in Jamaica Plain, Hope Lodge is far enough removed from the places of diagnosis and treatment, but convenient enough for the women who come from across the greater Boston area including Chinatown, Quincy and East Boston.
With a location secured, Ho started to invite women to participate in the group she calls Tea Time. "The spirit of tea permeates Chinese culture and we chat while we are enjoying tea," said Ho. "I wanted it to feel cozy right from the start."
She also started to think about how to approach the group. A native of China herself, Ho is well aware of the language and cultural differences that often prevent Chinese women from looking for support. "In our culture you don't really seek out a counselor or express your feelings like people often do in the United States," said Ho. "The way we were brought up is that you have to be independent and you have to be strong. That's the way we were taught. Those are the expectations from our parents. So sometimes it's hard for us to share our burdens with others."
Ho knew she would need to proceed cautiously to create a safe environment for the women. She thought about introducing a craft or some other ice breaking activity. She opted to make a dessert. "They started to do some simple cooking and they slowly started to talk to each other," said Ho. "They eventually got into very intimate conversations about the stigma of having cancer and how hard it was to talk to their families about it."
A young woman in her 20s revealed that she didn't know how to share the news about her recent diagnosis with her family back home. She was afraid to disappoint them and she didn't want them to worry. After talking with the group, she decided to tell her family using Skype. Once she got over her initial fear, she was relieved to find solace in the face to face communication Skype offered. "She was alone here in the States," said Ho. "But, she ended up getting a lot of much needed support from her parents and family in China."
The Tea Time group meets the first and third Monday of each month. They share a language, a culture and a disease history. They talk about ways to better take care of themselves and manage their own self image, about how to ignore what others might think of them. This intimacy comes as a result of the relationship Ho has with the women, a trust that has been carefully earned over time. "They help each other feel brave and proud of themselves for moving along this cancer path," said Ho. "It makes them feel they're not alone."
Ho smiled as she shared the story of two women who recently met in the group. They realized they had the same diagnosis, though they were in different stages of their disease. One had just learned of her cancer, the other had already completed her treatment. Both, it turns out, are from Toisan, a rural village in southern China. "They even speak the same dialect," said Ho. The connection between the two was immediate and strong.
"I have been to all the same places, to the same appointments," said Ms. Chen whose cancer is now in remission. Chen agreed to help her new friend through her appointments at BIDMC, much the way that Ho had helped her. "I know where to go. She's kind of lost and I'm trying to help."
Equally as important, the two can talk to each other and to the other women at Tea Time. "The group helps," said Chen. "It's a safe place where we can express our concerns and feelings." Something they might not otherwise do.
"Running this group is challenging but rewarding," said Ho. "When I see that they can change what they thought in the past and do things differently, it makes me feel that Tea Time is so powerful."