LEWISTON — Three weeks before the start of classes at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Dalton Bouchles’ headaches worsened.

A doctor discovered that the 18-year-old’s vision was waning in one eye. Later came a CT scan, an emergency meeting with a doctor and his diagnosis: He had a brain tumor.

Almost two years later, surgery has eradicated the cancer. But Bouchles is different. He has vision problems, cognitive issues and memory lapses.

And he’s lonely.

“Everybody basically disappeared from me,” said Bouchles, now 20. Friends went off to college while he stayed home and fought cancer. Six friends, four guys and two girls, remained. He calls them when he needs company.

And twice a month, he sees his group at She Doesn’t Like Guthries in Lewiston. He buys a cupcake at the counter and takes a seat with five or six other young adults looking for healing and understanding.


They talk and they share.

“For us, it’s a battle that just keeps going,” said Kevin Collins, 37, of Lewiston. He figures he missed 10 years of his growth while he fought to stay alive during two diagnoses, first with testicular cancer and then with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The first came in 2000.

“I was 23,” he said. “All of a sudden, my life became CT scans and blood work every month for years.”

Counselor Tookie Bright of the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing created the group a year ago after finding a need to serve people touched by cancer who were neither teens nor adults with marriages, mortgages and careers.

They meet in the restaurant as a way of escaping the usual too-clean institutional spaces.


“I think it feels more like a bunch of friends sitting down for dinner,” Bright said. On Tuesday evening, they munched on sandwiches. The over-21 members sipped beer.

And they talked.

Bouchles described how his life seemed to be swallowed up by his diagnosis.

“It’s like I was driving and there was a giant hole in front of me and I fell in,” he said. “I’m still trying to climb out of that hole.”

In the past year, he’s taken a few college classes, but his cognitive problem has made it tough. He can’t drive because of the vision problems. He forgets things.

“(And) I’m now living with my mother again,” he said.


Around the table, people nodded.

At 30, Tommy Chalmers still goes to his appointments accompanied by his mother. He was 20 and in college when he had his own brain cancer diagnosis. He fought it, aided by the Dana-Farber Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorder Center.

Today, he is considered cancer-free. But he deals with sometimes severe depression. He works in his family business, a North Conway insurance agency, and lives in Bridgton. But he makes the hourlong journey to Lewiston because for those moments that he’s sitting at the table, the anxiety seems to go away.

Here, he can talk about his home life and about how his diagnosis affects his ability to date. The anxiety of being on a first date is especially difficult.

“I can’t get out of my own head,” he said. If the cancer comes up, he wonders what his dates think and what kind of images they’re conjuring.

“I’m thinking that’s what they’re thinking even if they’re not thinking that,” he said.


Collins laughed, describing it as the “pingpong effect.”

“That big C word scares a lot of people off,” he said. “I had a hard time telling someone I cared about, ‘Hey, guess what? I’m a cancer survivor.’”

He said he’s learned not to guess anymore. Some understand. Some don’t.

Chalmers tries to keep his expectations low, he said.

“I tell myself, ‘If I never get married and if I never have kids, I can retire when I’m 50 and play golf the rest of my life,’” he said,

Collins said he understood.


“You see them go into this little shell like, ‘Uh-oh. Now what do I say?’” Collins said. They do this, ‘You know what? I’m going to talk to someone else now. I’ll talk to you later.’”

You have to let them go, he said.

“You hope to find the ones who understand,” he said.


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