Coping With Emotions

Cancer Support Groups at UVA: 4 Ways They Support Patients

Cancer support groups can be an invaluable resource and place of refuge for cancer patients and caregivers.

Whether you’ve recently been diagnosed, are currently undergoing treatment or have finished treatment, cancer support groups can be a tremendous comfort during emotional and stressful times. “Physical healing comes from treatment, but there’s a lot of emotional and spiritual healing that needs to take place too,” said Julie Perry, chaplain at UVA Cancer Center. “We help patients in providing an environment where they feel empowered and where healing can take place.”

UVA Cancer Center offers a variety of support groups for patients and caregivers. Some are for all individuals with cancer while others are tailored to patients with a specific cancer diagnosis, such as head and neck cancer or multiple myeloma. Some are topic-specific and are open to both those currently in treatment and who have finished treatment, such as the grief support programs and women’s spirituality group. Other groups are designed for caregivers like family or friends.

Here’s how the UVA team approaches support groups and creates a place of refuge for patients and caregivers.

1. Supports the Whole Person

The support groups at UVA are thoughtfully planned and initiated by the support services team, which includes chaplains, social workers, patient navigators and counselors, says Perry. The team discusses current needs among patients and how they can support the whole person as they navigate their cancer journey and treatment. “There’s a real variety of people [in the support groups] but they all have this diagnosis that has changed their lives forever, which may have caused them to think about their lives in a different way,” she said.

2. Creates a Safe Space

Perry says the most important goal of a support group is to create an environment where participants feel safe, “where they can develop trust in the facilitator and learn to share with one another.” That means facilitators make room for everyone to share and tell their story while recognizing that not everyone is ready to contribute on day one. Perry also says that the group participants are asked to respect the confidentiality of anything that’s shared during meetings.

3. Offers Structured Conversations

Prior to each meeting, the facilitator develops an agenda for the conversation. “It’s part of what makes these groups successful and how they help people to feel connected,” Perry said. Still, facilitators are flexible and will focus on the group’s concerns and take the conversation where the group needs it to go.

The support group leaders also make sure all of the participants have an equal opportunity to share their stories and verbalize their concerns. If you’re unsure about sharing in a group setting, don’t worry. No one is forced to participate if they are not yet ready or comfortable.

4. Nourishes Relationships

The glue that holds together many cancer support groups is the relationship that develops between participants. “They come to realize that they’re not alone, that someone else is in a similar situation,” said Perry. “Somehow, that makes it more bearable because you’re around others who know what you’re feeling because they’re going through it or have gone through it themselves.” She notes that she and other facilitators of cancer support groups don’t make those connections happen; they just create the environment where it can happen.

For patients and caregivers, support groups can be an incredible resource throughout the cancer journey. “The power of cancer support groups is feeling like you’re not alone and that your voice is heard,” Perry said.

You don't have to go through your cancer journey alone. UVA Cancer Center offers several support groups to help you heal.

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Christine Yu