Cancer Support Groups Benefit Mind, Body

Women gathered at a support group

I have developed, promoted and facilitated many cancer support groups over the last 20 years.

Some of the groups were open to people with any cancer diagnosis. Some groups were designed only for caregivers. Others provided a place where people with a specific cancer diagnosis could meet others with the same condition.

Many support groups across the nation meet in hospitals; churches, synagogues and other places of worship, community centers, private homes and online.

All cancer support groups provide much needed psychosocial support regardless of who actually attends the group. I have seen firsthand the psychological benefits of peer support and heard from group attendees about how much they get out of their participation.

But support groups are not for every cancer patient, and not every patient attends a group. Studies show that 5 to 20 percent of cancer patients attend a support group during or after their cancer treatment.

Benefits of a Support Group

Many patients report they already have good support, or they don’t feel well enough to attend. Others are uncomfortable sharing their experiences with strangers or believe hearing stories from other cancer patients will be depressing.

However, those who choose to attend a cancer support group do report benefits. In fact, studies have specifically measured emotional and psychological improvements as a result of attending a cancer support group.

Support groups help members:

  • Decrease anxiety
  • Reduce psychological distress
  • Improve adaptive coping with cancer-related stressors
  • Increase self esteem

Support group attendees also report many benefits of their participation, including:

A sense of belonging

Many cancer patients, even those with good family support, say their loved ones don’t understand all the emotions that accompany a cancer diagnosis. Having a place where cancer patients don’t have to explain or educate others about their diagnosis and treatment is comforting.

Normalization

It is hard to know if what you are thinking or feeling (physically or emotionally) is normal when you are battling cancer. Hearing your side effects are normal from another cancer patient going through the process is reassuring and helps patients to feel normal.

A safe place to give and receive support

Many cancer patients say they are reluctant to share everything they are feeling or experiencing with their loved ones because they don’t want to burden or worry them further. By definition, cancer support groups are places where patients can share their thoughts and feelings, not just the positive ones. Group members also enjoy being able to listen, support and normalize other group members. It feels good to give and receive support.

Improved self-confidence and self-esteem

Most support group members report feeling empowered by being a part of the group. They feel less stigmatized as a cancer patient and realize their thoughts and feelings are understandable.

Better able to communicate with health care team

Cancer patients report feeling they communicate more effectively with their health care providers by having a forum to discuss treatment options, side effects and disease terminology.

They learn terminology and follow treatment protocols unfamiliar to most people. Support group members often educate each other about how to navigate medical and hospital systems, learn about clinical trials and how to get the help they need from health care professionals.

New Way for Cancer Patients to Support Each Other

In the last decade, many cancer patients have turned to the Web for giving and receiving support. There are dozens of message boards which allow cancer patients to share their story, ask questions about treatment side effects and treatment options, and read other patients’ accounts of their cancer journeys.

Some of these message boards are moderated by a health care or mental health professional, but some are not.

Another great forum is joining an online support group, which is just like a regular support group, but you don’t have to leave your home.

You just call in or log in using your computer.

The Mesothelioma Center is one of the few online support groups that meet monthly. It is open only to those with mesothelioma and their caregivers. Each meeting includes a short educational presentation and is followed by a moderated discussion between group members who share their cancer experience and ask questions to others with mesothelioma.

Because mesothelioma is so rare, it is difficult for patients to find peer support in their own community. A recent online support group on coping with mesothelioma allowed people to connect with others from all over the country and the world.

Patients and caregivers have said they look forward to the meetings because it provides them a place where they can learn from others who are battling the same disease.

  1. Docherty, A. (2004, October). Experience, functions and benefits of a cancer support group. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15476994
  2. Ussher, J., Kirsten, L., Butow, P., Sandoval, M. (2006, May). What do cancer support groups provide which other supportive relationships do not? The experience of peer support groups for people with cancer. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16303220

Dana Nolan, MS, LMHC, is a licensed mental health counselor who leads The Mesothelioma Center’s monthly support group. She specializes in working with individuals affected by cancer. Dana practices in Altamonte Springs, Fla.

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