Coping With Emotions

How to Find the Right Cancer Support Group for You

Connecting with a group of people going through a similar experience can be immensely helpful.

Living with cancer and its treatment is a heavy emotional burden, but cancer support groups can provide perspective, advice and shared experience that can help with shouldering that load. Support groups for cancer can even help those in your life who don’t have cancer, like caregivers, family and friends. Having an outlet for your emotions can help you all cope in healthy, meaningful ways.

What You Can Expect

There can be significant differences among cancer support groups, so you may need to ask yourself what you want out of the experience. You should consider the size of the group, the average age of the members, and whether they are separated by gender, as these factors can make a big difference in the flow of conversation and how willing people are to share within the group. The group leader will also have an impact on how it feels to participate in the group.

Sometimes the support groups are led by licensed therapists, but more often the support meetings are headed up by a survivor who may have received some training in leading groups of this nature. Survivors can be very effective group leaders.

Each group will have its own norms, such as how the meeting flows, including whether everyone sits in a circle or faces the same direction, for example. In some groups, people speak up when they feel moved to speak, while in others, the conversation moves around the circle with each person having a turn to speak. In most groups, there is no obligation to speak — you are welcome to listen and learn from others without contributing your own story unless you are comfortable doing so.

Support groups often meet at a routine interval, such as weekly or monthly. They may meet at the same location each time, but many smaller support groups may vary where they meet, such as members taking turns hosting the meeting in their home.

Finding the Right Group for You

Because there is so much variety between the medical needs of each individual and the treatment plans available, it’s important to respect treatment choices that might be different from what you would choose. Many groups have a policy of not providing medical advice.

Respect for different religious backgrounds and lifestyles is generally expected from members, as is a level of respect for each individual member and each of their different stories.

If you’re nervous about your first meeting in a support group, call ahead and speak to the leader. Ask some questions about how the group functions, so you have a feel for what to expect and what will be expected of you.

While participating in a cancer support group can provide a great deal of emotional relief, finding the right fit will be even better for your emotional health. Your conversation with the group leader can help you understand more about the group, but it might take a couple meetings to know whether this group is right for you right now. Some people might need to keep looking to find a group that is a better fit.

Timing is an important consideration as well. While some people benefit from the support group during treatment, others focus their energy on powering through treatment, and find the support group is more helpful after treatment ends while they are rebuilding their post-cancer life.

However you choose to approach cancer support groups, a sense of hope and curiosity can lead you to a support group that suits your needs and helps you build a supportive network of peers who understand what you’re going through because they’ve been there too.

UVA Cancer Center Patient Navigators can help connect patients with appropriate support groups.

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Judy Schwartz Haley
Judy Schwartz Haley