Laughter is not what one expects to hear at this gathering of a dozen women seated around a conference table at St. John's Hospital in Maplewood.
In their 40s through 70s, they've been brought together by a shared diagnosis of Stage IV cancer.
Co-facilitators Linda Klein, of Stillwater, and Jane Klein, of Bloomington, have created this safe space for them to talk treatments, hear inspirational readings and, mostly, say and feel anything they need to say and feel.
So, at the moment, they're laughing. Soon, a few will cry as Sue VanderHeyden, 47, of Afton, talks about her upcoming plans to shop for a wedding dress with her daughter -- her 13-year-old daughter. Sue knows that she might not be around for the real thing, so mother and daughter aren't waiting. "She asked me," Sue says, grabbing a tissue. "I want it to be fun, like it is when you really go."
The women here feel immense gratitude for Linda, who founded the Affirming Life support group 14 years ago, and Jane, who became co-facilitator in 2002. "This group is one of the main reasons I believe I'm alive," says Kathy Damerow, a 10-year ovarian cancer survivor.
Linda, a writer, and Jane, a registered nurse, met 47 years ago as roommates at Gustavus Adolphus College, thrown together in a closet-sized room due to a mix-up. After losing touch, they've moved together along a serendipitous path since, delighted, for example, to learn that they both married men named Bill Klein.
Linda later named her third and youngest child Alison Jane to honor her best friend. Last week, they celebrated their 65th birthdays together over lunch. But it is their passion for this difficult and essential work that sealed their friendship long ago.
After college, Jane piloted the I Can Cope program for the American Cancer Society. Linda, who has a business degree, authored the books "I Can Cope: Staying Healthy With Cancer" and "The Support Group Sourcebook."
When Jane shifted to the HealthEast Care System, which includes St. John's, she brought Linda on to write newsletters and annual reports. The support group keeps them grounded and grateful. These women, says Linda, "are past judging what you're wearing. They're just longing for the communion of the room. We feel blessed that the friendship we developed in college has grown into the ministry we both share."