I love my support groups. Often I joke that there is an invisible prerequisite to joining: only really lovely women are allowed. Over thirty years of facilitating groups, there have been only a few exceptions to that "rule", and I continuously feel blessed to participate.
Of course I know that cancer support groups aren't right for everyone. Mine are filled, always, with women who first spoke with me, saying something like: "I am not a group person". But having a cancer diagnosis turns a lot of us into different people, and we are open to new experiences. When a speak with a potential group member, I describe my groups like this: We talk about all the hard things, but we laugh a lot, too. When someone begins a sentence, everyone in the room could complete the paragraph.
Since so much of living with cancer means feeling alone or misunderstood or sad or scared or isolated or different from or sick or....., it is incredibly empowering and wonderful to be with others who completely "get it." I facilitate four groups: women who are newly diagnosed with breast cancer or going through first time treatment, women who have completed treatment and are trying to figure out their lives now, women who have metastatic/advanced/Stage IV cancer of any kind, and women with GYN cancers of any stage. Each group is unique, but surely shares commonalities with the others.
If you are interested in joining a group, but don't live close enough to Boston to attend one of mine, I have a few suggestions to help your search. First, there are far fewer cancer support groups than one might think. Given the incidence of cancer, it seems as though there should be one in every town, but there's not. Too often, a group is advertised, but, when you call, you discover that it isn't functioning because of under enrollment. If you are looking for one, ask your cancer caregivers for suggestions, call the nearest Cancer Center or large hospital social work department, call the local ACS. When you have identified a possibility, speak first with the facilitator. It is important to know who is leading the group (there are some peer-led cancer support groups, and no doubt some work well, but there are serious worries re management of difficult situations like someone who dominates the entire conversation or someone receiving bad news) as well as who is attending.
This is an introduction to an excellent article from ASCO's CancerNet about groups:
A support group may help you receive emotional and educational support throughout your cancer experience.
Many types of support groups are available; consider your needs and personality to decide which type may be best for you.
A variety of people, organizations, and other resources can help you find a support group.
Having cancer is often one of the most stressful experiences in a person's life. However, support groups help many people cope with the emotional aspects of cancer by providing a safe place to share their feelings and challenges and learn from others who are facing similar situations.
Reasons to join a support group
Receiving a cancer diagnosis often triggers a strong emotional response. Although some people experience shock, anger, and disbelief, others may feel intense sadness, fear, and a sense of loss. Loneliness and isolation are other common feelings because even the most supportive family members and friends cannot understand exactly how it feels to have cancer.
Support groups offer the chance for people to talk about their experiences with others living with cancer, which can help reduce stress. Group members can share feelings and experiences that may seem too strange or too difficult to share with family and friends. And the group dynamics often create a sense of belonging that helps each person feel more understood and less alone.