The support group landscape seems to be changing. I see this in my own practice and hear it from colleagues around the country. While there will always be a wish and a need for groups, many people are finding other ways to make the connections that come with this kind of community. One obvious trend is towards more of everything being available online. We are working to launch an online support community/social network for our oncology patients and families, and groups, both formal and informal, will be part of that plan. In the meantime, I strongly encourage people who are interested to seek out a way to sit together with others going through the same experience.
Let me begin with full disclosure: I am a fan of good support groups. In my thirty plus years of clinical experience, I am increasingly convinced that, for many people, there is nothing as helpful as joining a good group. The chance to feel fully understood, to have a safe place to express any fears or sadness or black humor, the sharing of resources and tips, and the incredible bonds that are formed are benefits to be treasured. The shorthand explanation is this: “In a group, one person can begin a sentence, and everyone there understands the whole paragraph.” And “We can talk about all the hard stuff, but we laugh a lot, too.”
For years, I have facilitated five support groups, and they are usually the best parts of my week. I appreciate the opportunity to know so many wonderful women, to learn from them, and to practice in a slightly less traditional way than is necessary in individual therapy sessions. Women who have attended my groups often form friendships that continue for years, and the community serves as a beacon of acceptance, hope, and safe harbor for all who wish to participate.
Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a “group person”, I strongly urge you to consider joining a support group now. Some people find it most helpful soon after diagnosis, some prefer to wait until active treatment has begun, and some find a group once treatment is over, and they are beginning to process issues of survivorship. Others, living with advanced cancer, find an ongoing group to be incredibly helpful.
Here are my suggestions about finding the right group:
1. Be aware that there are fewer active groups than you would anticipate. Just because one is listed does not mean that it is meeting. Be prepared to call around. Start by asking at the place where you are treated. If there are none there, call the nearest cancer center and ask. Talk with your friends; ask other patients at your treatment center. Most local chapters of the American Cancer Society maintain lists of local groups, and certainly you can look online.
2. Groups are organized in different ways. Some are general cancer support groups, open to anyone with any diagnosis and any stage of illness. Others, like mine, are much more specific; for example, I have a group for women going through adjuvant treatment for breast cancer and a group for women with advanced disease. Facilitators and institutions have different philosophies about what is most helpful. Think about what would be best for you.
3. Most groups are professionally facilitated, but some are peer led. I am wary of any that do not have a trained leader, as the intense feelings related to cancer need careful tending. Ask about the leader.
4. Ask who comes to the group. You will feel most comfortable if at least some other members are like you. Consider age, sex, marital status and sexual orientation, whether they are working or not, have children, etc.
There is rarely a fee for attending a support group. Do ask.