How Support Groups Can Help Cancer Patients

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Cancer Support Groups

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer 15 years ago I joined a cancer support group. At first, I was reluctant to attend. I had little energy and was sick from surgery and chemotherapy. The last thing I wanted to do was meet more sick people – it sounded like it would be depressing. However, my oncologist thought that I would benefit from going to a meeting and so I went.

Do I Have the Courage and Energy to Attend a Meeting?

The group that I initially attended was for people who had all kinds of cancer. I felt overwhelmed when I went in. Some of the people there looked so sick. Frankly, it scared me.

Then people started talking. And again I felt scared because some of the group members were facing cancer for their second and third time. That really freaked me out. Here I was, horribly ill from chemotherapy, and having to hear about the possibility that this terrible disease might come back! I wanted to run away and never go back.

But I did go back, at the urging of family and my health care team. One of my co-workers had cancer a year before I did and she said that she felt like people in the support group understood how she felt better than people who had never been diagnosed with the disease. That made sense to me. It also helped that she attended the next meetings with me.

Sharing is Caring

I did find the support group helpful. My co-worker was right, the people in the group did “get it” about the emotional roller coaster ride. They also understood how terrible the side effects of treatment made me feel.

However, if that had been all I gained from the group I don’t think I would have continued going. But I found that other cancer overcomers (I dislike the term “survivors”) were generous and caring. They offered practical advice for controlling symptoms of the ever-present nausea.

I learned how to navigate the health care system better with their help than I had while working as a nurse. The support group helped me to understand what clinical trials are. I discussed this with my oncologist and was able to participate in a trial.

Help For the Whole Family

One of the greatest benefits was the strain that it took off of my family. I was young when I was diagnosed with cancer. I was a mom, full-time nurse, and full-time student. My family was not used to me being ill, teary and helpless. My husband and I had no idea how we would manage financially or even how to get me back and forth to the hospital for treatments.

By joining the support group, I learned about the community resources that were available to me, including a food shelf, medical transportation volunteers and programs that helped us to pay for utilities.

My children linked up with other children whose parents were going through treatment too. It gave them a forum for sharing their own fears.

Support Groups Are Empowering

I found that the members of the cancer support group were strong in many ways. They recognized that each person had to follow the treatment and life path they thought best, but they held me accountable for how I dealt with the challenges cancer presented.

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When you are home alone, crying that you have a terrible diagnosis, it is only natural to feel sorry for yourself and wonder, “Why me?” When you are sitting in a room full of people who have cancer it is harder to feel sorry for yourself. I found myself developing an attitude of, “Well if she can get through this, so can I.” Despite my illness, I realized that I could help others with just a hug or kind word.

Different Kinds of Cancer Support Groups

Attending a cancer support group is likely not at all what you think it will be like. You will witness heartbreak, absolute joy, laughter, and camaraderie. Some groups sponsor activities like dinners. The first dinner that I attended made me nauseous, but the support made it worth it.

Support groups are sometimes formed to address specific kinds of cancer. You can learn a great deal about your disease in any support group, however, ones that address your specific type of cancer are usually the best ones to attend if you are looking for information.

Support groups sometimes invite speakers to attend meetings. They may be experts in cancer treatment, nutritionists, or alternative medicine practitioners. You don’t just learn about cancer. You can learn how to live life well.

Nourishing the Spirit

For many people, attending a support group has a spiritual component. It is an important, often overlooked, aspect of healing from cancer.

Doctors and health care experts are often so focused on blood counts, managing side effects, medications, and other treatments that they overlook the impact that cancer has on your mind, body, and spirit.

I think most of the time it’s not that health care workers are unkind, it is simply that they are focused on destroying the cancer and saving lives. Support groups help cancer overcomers create new, better lives for themselves.

Find the Right Fit For You

Not every support group is best for everyone. If you attend one and it doesn’t feel right for you, try another one. All support groups have a variety of attendees. Avoid groups that claim they have “the “answer.” Many groups have one or two members who think that their way or their doctor is “the answer” to cancer.

Remember that every person and every cancer is different. Just because three people have stage three breast cancer does not mean that the cancers are alike.

Focus on Lasting Wellness

Being a member of a cancer support group made me gain a confidence in myself that I had not experienced so strongly even before I was diagnosed. It made me kinder, more patient, and a better nurse. I learned to appreciate each moment and fret less over small things. I enjoy life more now. I feel less self-conscious about being silly and playful.

Having cancer stinks. Joining a support group can provide you with tools to make it less isolating and more tolerable. You’ll develop relationships and tools to help make your life after cancer more meaningful and satisfying than it was before you had the disease.

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