Eight cancer patients, young and old, black and white, sat in a rough circle in the Northwest Washington apartment.

Perhaps "former cancer patients" would be a better phrase, perhaps not. All had been under treatment. Some -- one cannot say which -- would be again.

All were volunteers in a growing American Cancer Society program called "CanSurmount," described by the society as a "patient-to-patient support program." What these volunteers often do is get together and chat with current cancer patients who want to talk to someone who understands.

On this night, however, these eight volunteers were meeting to talk to each other in the interest of reinforcement and training.

Also, they readily admitted, this activity helped them, too.

As a handsome Northern Virginia woman who had breast cancer 4 1/2 years ago said: "You never completely heal from that experience. This is one way of healing."

The formal part of the meeting, including a talk by Florence Henderson, chief radiation technologist at the Washington Hospital Center, was ended. The evening had started rather solemnly, then moved into a good deal of humor and laughter.

Came refreshment time, and I asked the Northern Virginia woman and a pleasant young man with a fashionable red beard -- who had testicular cancer 10 years ago -- to tell me what they thought talking to cancer patients does for the patients, and what it does for them, the volunteers.

From my notes:

The young man: "Often a doctor talks and you don't hear. But if a CanSurmount volunteer talks to someone with a similar experience, they can ask you all sorts of questions . . . It's also our own way of partially dealing with our own experience. It's one way of getting something positive out of something so negative."

The woman: "It's sort of strengthening. It makes it all make some sense. I don't think there's a lot of do-gooding in it, because it gives so much . . . It's an upbeat thing. You really get to know these people, and that's exciting. The more we do for other people, the more we get out of it ourselves."

The young man: "It can be very lovely talking to these people. And it's also scarey sometimes -- you see what can happen."

The woman: "Yes, but, the patient looks at you and says, 'There's hope for me' . . . I'll tell you something I sometime tell them, and it may sound a little funny to you. Cancer is an opportunity. Somehow it lifts off the superficial problems. It makes you look at what's important. And it brings a lot of gifts. You somehow realize what it is you'd like to do. You're not as disturbed by the day-to-day things. You stop to look at what really means something to you. I can't say it to everybody, but if I live through it, it will be one of the best experiences of my life."

The young man: "We can give patients something nobody else can give them. I've been there. You can make a big contribution just by being in the room."

Resources

To learn more about how to see or phone a CanSurmount volunteer, call an American Cancer Society unit. In the Washington area:

District of Columbia: 483-2600.

Northern Virginia: 938-5550.

Montgomery County: 933-9350.

Prince George's County (Chesapeake-Potomac Unit): 864-7361.