The Power of Support Groups

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Support groups for people going through cancer are so commonplace these days it may be hard to imagine a time when they weren’t available. But it wasn’t always that way, and it turns out that social support affects not only mood and quality of life, but potentially also cancer survival.

Support groups are accepted as a helpful part of treatment for a number of reasons. First, you can meet other people who understand what it’s like to go through a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Second, you can learn how people managed the difficulties you may now be encountering. Third, it’s a safe place to talk openly about the things that your family and friends might be tired of hearing or are too scared to discuss.

But rewind 25 years and support groups were rare. When Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist from Stanford University, spearheaded a study of Supportive-Expressive Group Therapy for women with advanced breast cancer, many people considered him quite misguided, if not completely crazy. In these groups people with metastatic cancer got together weekly to express their feelings and thoughts. Inevitably some would fall ill and die – how could that be helpful, people asked, to see your close friends dying from the same disease you have? Wouldn’t it just be too traumatic?

It turns out that having a safe place to express your feelings, the dark ones and the sunny ones, is beneficial. People in these groups fared better in a number of ways than their counterparts who didn’t attend groups. The most well-publicized was that they not only felt better, but they lived longer. This finding is controversial and several replication studies have found conflicting results, but the bottom line is this: Professionally-led support groups do more good than harm.

This is great news, as what could be easier than getting a bunch of people who are all living through a cancer diagnosis together to talk about it all? True, but if the discussion isn’t directed by a skilled professional counsellor with experience in oncology, the benefits aren’t as strong. It’s not enough simply to express emotions, but also to process them and make sense of the disease in the context of your own life. A therapist can help you “detoxify” fears of death and dying and address the frightening parts of the disease head-on, with caring and support from the therapist as well as other group members.

Women have been historically more open to attending support groups, but men also benefit from the opportunity to connect with peers. For example, the Prostate Cancer Canada Network Calgary (www.pccncalgary.org) meets monthly and uses a discussion and informational format to introduce issues of concern to these patients, such as side-effects of treatment, family issues and work problems. They host speakers and have a peer support format that opens the floor to discussion. Similar professionally-led groups exist in Alberta for survivors of leukemia and lymphoma to give patients, survivors and families a forum where information and emotions can be shared in a caring environment.

Some problems can’t be fixed, but people can be healed psychologically even if their disease is not cured. More than anything else, that’s what groups offer. A chance for some healing. The possibility of a peaceful death, if that’s the outcome. Or the chance to live a more genuine life in accordance with your own deepest values.

Dr. Linda Carlson is the Enbridge Chair in Psychosocial Oncology at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, a professor and a clinical psychologist at the University of Calgary and co-author of Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery: A Mbsr Approach to Help You Cope With Treatment and Reclaim Your Life. Learn more at lindacarlson.ca.

CONTACT: Find out about support groups by calling the Department of Psychosocial Resources. In Calgary, call the Tom Baker Cancer Centre at 403-355-3207. In Edmonton, try the Cross Cancer Institute at 780-643-4303. In other communities in the province, call your local Community Cancer Centre.

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