When David was diagnosed with colon cancer a friend suggested he go to a support group to help him cope with the diagnosis. David thought, “I am not a group person. I don’t want to sit around and listen to other people’s problems!”
During the first chemotherapy session a nurse suggested he try a support group to talk about fatigue during chemotherapy. David thought, “I just want to get this over with. I do not want to talk about it more!”
While in the hospital for his colon surgery, the surgeon encouraged David to attend a support group for people with ostomy bags. This time, David thought, “Okay, fine. I will give the support group try. Maybe then people will stop telling me to go!”
Why are support groups so often recommended to people with cancer? Mainly because there’s value in talking to others who have “been there, done that.” A cancer diagnosis puts you on a long, difficult journey. When you go to a support group, you get a chance to talk to people who know about the journey, and may be able to help you along the way. And as you gain a better understanding of the journey, you may feel more in control and more hopeful.
How can you decide if a support group is right for you? First learn a little bit about the group. Pick a group with people who are about your same stage in life, if possible, and have a similar cancer diagnosis. There are online and telephone groups, but something special does happen when people meet in live time, so try to go to a group in person. Check the back ground of the group leader, looking for credentials such as LSCW (licensed clinical social worker), PhD (psychologist) or LPC (licensed practicing counselor) or MD (medical doctor). The leader should facilitate the conversation in a way that builds up members’ confidence to handle stress related to the cancer experience. All group members should be given a chance to contribute. After some sharing of experiences and emotions, the focus should shift to problem solving about how to manage specific cancer challenges, like fatigue, caregiving or returning to work.
Support groups do not suit everyone, though. How much you benefit from a support group depends on where you are in your cancer journey, the other group members, the leader and the format of the group. Some groups are just not a good match for some people. For instance, the first support group David went to was for anyone with cancer. The group leader did no leading, and one member of the group dominated the conversation with complaints about the medical profession without any effort at managing his negative emotions or problem solving about how to communicate with his medical team. Fortunately, David was willing to try a different support group, one with men his age who also had colon cancer. In the second group, David met several people who had been living fully with cancer for years. He learned about how to manage his ostomy bag, counter the fatigue from chemotherapy, and better coordinate his visits to the cancer center so he could have more free time from being a patient. Even after chemotherapy, David stayed in touch with a couple people from his group so he could share survivorship victories such as seeing his hair grow back, returning to work, and running his first post-cancer 5k.
For people that do not feel like the group format is helpful, even after trying a second group like David did, individual counseling is another option to help manage cancer-related stress. Talk therapy has been show by scientific studies to treat clinical depressive and anxiety disorders equally as well as medications. Finding a therapist may take some time, but it will be worth it when you find a therapist that is a good match. Start by checking your insurance for who is in network, PhD, LCSW or MD (yes, some psychiatrists do talk therapy, not just prescriptions). Try to get a therapist on the phone so you can briefly describe your symptoms and ask if they feel comfortable managing those symptoms. Many therapists have websites that describe their clinical training and the type of therapy they practice. Talk therapy is not just for when you are feeling stressed. Many people get into therapy when they are feeling psychologically strong – the idea being that when you are in a healthy state of mind, you can really focus on difficult issues in your life (relationships, work satisfaction, guilt).
Whether you opt for a support group or individual therapy, taking care of your psychological well-being will help you find some inner peace and may motivate you to make healthy changes in your life.
Dr. Baer is paid by WebMD to provide/present this information. The opinions expressed are those of Dr. Baer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Emory University or Emory Healthcare.