Stanford University

Cancer Support Groups – The Pros and Cons of Joining and Attending Them During Your Recovery

You’ve been diagnosed with cancer and are still reeling from the news. I still remember that period, even though I’m now a 11-year survivor. Your family and friends, who you assumed would be your rocks during this experience, are almost as upset and haven’t been able to provide the support you so badly need. Is a support group the answer?

One of the most famous and influential studies of the efficacy of support groups was conducted by Dr. David Spiegel, a Stanford University psychiatrist. Dr. Spiegel found that breast cancer patients randomly placed in weekly support groups for one year lived markedly longer than controls — patients randomly assigned only to regular medical care.

The study, once touted as the gold standard in research about support groups and survivors, has since been challenged. To confirm the once heralded results, Spiegel and a team of researchers from Stanford designed another study, to replicate their earlier findings that intensive group therapy extended survival times of women with metastatic breast cancer.

Their results? They found that the earlier finding that longer survival was associated with supportive expressive group therapy was not replicated. They also said that although it is possible that psychosocial effects on survival are relevant to a small subsample of women, further research was required to investigate subgroup differences.

Given these findings, should you join a support group or not? The following points are some of the reasons that people find belonging to a cancer support group an integral component of their treatment and healing journey.

  1. Participants develop a new attitude towards their illness. Instead of seeing their cancer diagnosis as simply devastating, many attending support groups find that the group helps them find the gifts in the disease.
  2. With the support of group members, they make the changes in their lives that they think are important and have been putting off.
  3. As a result of sharing information and resources, many cancer support group participants access resources that they might not have been aware of.
  4. There’s comfort in belonging to a group that speaks the same language you do, because they’ve experienced the same things.
  5. There’s incredible freedom in being able to be perfectly honest about what you’re going through and not having to censure yourself because of your loved ones and friends discomfort with your cancer diagnosis.
  6. They increase the cancer support group members understanding of diagnosis and treatment through other people’s experiences.
  7. They learn self care skills.
  8. Strong new friendships can be forged between cancer survivors.

There is no doubt that there are many positive reasons to join a support group. The decision is a highly personal one. But don’t feel bad if you find that they aren’t for you, which was the case for me.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer 10 years ago, I attended two support groups. One was led by a former survivor and it was less structured than the second group that I joined. I found the second group, which was led by a therapist, incredibly depressing. It fueled the incredible amount of fear I was feeling at the time. Because my diagnosis came during the same month that we learned my Mom’s primary breast cancer had metastasized, I was riding a big wave of fear and anxiety. Meeting with other survivors whose cancer had metastasized exacerbated my fright. Consequently, instead of feeling the support that many people feel from attending these groups, all I felt was increased fear. I quit the cancer support group after four meetings.

Joining a support group is a personal decision that can only be made by you. If the cancer support group you join isn’t helping you during your cancer journey, look for another one, either in person or online. Thanks to the Internet and social networking, there are a lot of groups to choose from.