Fact:  Cancer patients who regularly participate in support groups live longer than those who do not.

Research at The Stanford University School of Medicine confirmed what cancer survivors have known for decades.  Patients with advanced breast cancer who attended a weekly two-hour support group session had a life expectancy twice that of the non-attenders.  Further research at U.C.L.A. and King’s College in London confirms the value of attending support groups.  The message is clear:  We truly need one another for survival.

Women with breast cancer are the largest group of female survivors of cancer. Not surprisingly, women with breast cancer are also the most frequent attendees of cancer support groups. In a landmark study, letters of invitation were mailed to 1,336 breast cancer survivors who had participated in an earlier survey and support group activities. They were now between five and ten years after their initial diagnosis.  The 914 respondents were then sent a survey booklet that assessed a broad range of quality of life and survivorship concerns. A total of 817 women completed the follow-up survey. The findings include:

  • Physical well-being and emotional well-being were excellent; the minimal changes between the baseline and follow-up assessments reflected expected age-related changes.
  • Energy level and social functioning were unchanged.
  • Hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal discharge, and breast sensitivity were less frequent.
  • Symptoms of vaginal dryness and urinary incontinence were increased.
  • Sexual activity with a partner declined significantly.
  • Survivors with no past systemic adjuvant therapy had a better quality of life than those who had received chemotherapy, tamoxifen, or both together.

The Stanford School of Medicine participants in weekly supportive group meetings for women with breast cancer were systematically evaluated in a one-year, randomized, prospective outcome study.  This was talk therapy. The groups focused on the problems of illness, including improving relationships with family and friends and living as fully as possible in the face of cancer. The investigators hypothesized that this support group intervention would lead to improved mood, coping strategies, and self-esteem among those in the treatment group.  Eighty-six patients were tested at four-month intervals. The treatment groups had significantly lower mood-disturbance scores on the Profile of Mood States scale, had fewer coping problems, and were less phobic than the control group.  These studies provide objective evidence that support group participation results in psychological benefits and improved quality of life.

Distinguish between the two major types of support groups:  clinical and psychosocial.  The clinical groups communicate basic knowledge on a wide variety of oncology issues.  Subjects might include types of cancer treatments, common side effects, physical therapy following breast surgery, or how to live with an ostomy.  The idea behind this type of support group is simply to inform.

More critical to survival are the psychosocial support groups.  These are the supportive/expressive therapeutic programs that focus on the emotional, psychological, and spiritual aspects of cancer.  Look for groups that take a stance of hope without denying the reality of the illness.  At meetings you should expect to express your own fears and frustrations freely and allow others in the group to do the same.  You’ll learn from the responses of the group members who have overcome cancer, and you’ll contribute to those who are just beginning the cancer recovery journey.

One warning:  A potential problem with any type of support group is that instead of encouraging personal growth, many groups quickly turn into a “pity party.”  While there is significant value in allowing people to talk out their problems, the discerning group needs a leader to judge when the talking is therapeutic and when it is rehearsing, and reinforcing, a problem.