Three of my friends have brain cancer. Sarah was diagnosed five years ago, John last spring, Jennifer just months later. These are not far-flung friends. They all live within a couple of miles from each other and me in the same Greater Minnesota town. It makes you worry about hot spots, those unusual concentrations of disease in certain geographies. It makes you feel vulnerable, in addition to the sadness and the concern. It makes you wonder how to explain it at the dinner table.
What I told my kids, and what I think and hope is true is that we do not live in a hot spot. We and our neighbors are not marked for this awful disease. Perhaps three people we care about have cancer — or rather we know that these three people have cancer — because we are fortunate to have a broad and strong social network. We know our neighbors. We’ve pulled weeds and shared potlucks and raised funds and cheered teams alongside these people.
Last March an ambulance pulled up to John’s house. Within minutes three neighbors were on the porch. One drove his wife to the hospital to meet John in the emergency room. One took the dog home with her. The third waited for the teenagers to arrive home. Forty-eight hours, two hospitals, and several high-tech procedures later we learned about the brain tumor. Later we learned that it is inoperable. Later still, John embarked on a course of intensive treatment.
We don’t know exactly what lies ahead. But one thing is clear: Whatever the medical outcome, this family will be supported by a network of people who care. Friends will drive John to treatment, preventing his wife from covering all the miles herself, exhausted and distracted. Others will deliver meals, assuring the family remembers to eat. Another friend has a specialist to recommend. Someone else covers a work shift. Still others will make it clear in words and action that the teenagers are loved and cared for by many.
Built over time, potluck by potluck …
That John and his family have this social-support network is no accident. It was built over time, potluck by potluck, committee by committee, park cleanup by park cleanup.
Remember that scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when George Bailey is in crisis and the people of Bedford Falls rush to his aid? Social connections were not created in that moment; they were merely tapped. George Bailey had built his network of social connections by knowing and caring for and trusting his neighbors in good times and bad over the course of a lifetime.
Researchers call it by several names — social cohesion, social capital, social connectedness, social networks. Common elements include feelings of trust, shared values, and reciprocity. The willingness to do something on behalf of a neighbor or community.
So many good outcomes
The literature is clear that social connectedness is directly and indirectly related to good health outcomes. Strong relationships with friends and neighbors help people to be more involved in their communities, perform better in school and live happier and healthier lives.
What is less clear is exactly how to get there. How do we intentionally build those bonds between neighbors? How do we create the linkages that help people navigate their world, find the right school, a good doctor, a great recipe? How do we reach those less inclined or less able to build connections?
Positive social connections are health-supporting in and of themselves. Plus, when we build that good will, those shared values, that sense that one good turn deserves another, we reap untold benefits for our families and our communities.
And, if you are lucky, when the chips are down and your neighbor is ill, you will have the privilege of lending a hand.
Carolyn Link is the executive director of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation. She lives in Northfield, Minn. This essay was written in the months following John’s diagnosis. It is written in honor of Jennifer and in memory of Sarah and John.
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