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Support Groups And Breast Cancer: Strength In Numbers

By Ty Eggenberger
InteliHealth Correspondent

"I was dumbfounded," Cynthia Taylor says, recalling the day she learned she had breast cancer. "My previous mammogram was the clearest one I'd had."

Taylor had been a successful health care professional, beginning as a nurse and advancing to chief operator of patient care at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md. She also co-authored a best-selling book for nursing students.

But even her background in health care hadn't prepared her for the results of her mammogram.

Taylor knew she was not alone. She had just joined a large community — more than 180,000 women in this country are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. The question is, can a common problem be turned into a shared strength?

What Support Groups Have To Offer

A woman newly diagnosed with breast cancer faces many decisions, professional and personal, that won't wait for a less stressful time.

What treatment is best for me?

How will I arrange time off from work or from family responsibilities?

What do I need to do to get through each day?

"For many women, the coping process begins with handling the practical aspects of the illness," says Jane Bausch, a clinical social worker at the Breast Cancer Center at Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, part of the Harvard Medical School. In support groups, women with breast cancer can get practical tips from others facing a similar situation. Members of support groups can exchange advice on handling disruptions to daily life and trade tips on managing the side effects of treatment.

Bausch believes learning alongside women in the same situation promotes confidence. Merely hearing the right advice on a small detail, like getting to and from treatment, can greatly reduce stress.

Women in support groups may form bonds that bring comfort and strength as they face the same uncertainties and fight the same battles. "Breast cancer patients are more at risk for depression," Bausch explains, "these groups can act as a buffer against depression."

Types Of Support Groups

Support groups may be organized by cancer type or stage. The American Cancer Society suggests that cancer stage can be the most important factor in selecting a group.

"The fears of a woman with metastatic cancer may not be addressed by a group made up of women in earlier stages of the disease," Bausch says.

Likewise, a woman diagnosed with cancer for the first time may have different needs than a woman with recurrent cancer. Bausch points out that younger women often face unique issues such as having to delay pregnancy.

Some groups seek to educate members on cancer-related topics. These groups bring in medical experts to discuss specific topics such as hair loss caused by radiation treatment or chemotherapy. The focus is on providing concrete information rather than emotional support. However, many women in these groups discover that talking about the science of the disease often leads to a more personal, and perhaps emotionally rewarding, discussion.

Other support groups focus on mental health and may offer group therapy. Led by a trained mental health professional, members are encouraged to share each others' emotional struggle. In a coping skills intervention group, a mental health professional teaches relaxation training and other techniques to help members deal with stress.

Making A Commitment

What kind of commitment is required? It depends on the group. Some groups have open memberships; you can attend meetings with no expectation that you'll attend again. New faces usually appear every week. Some groups have closed memberships; you usually pre-register and commit to attending for a set time. Because a cancer diagnosis affects the whole family, some groups encourage family participation.

Most important, choices are available. "Everyone is unique and the way you go through this is unique," Bausch says. Ethnicity and language can play a part in choosing a group as well, and she encourages each woman to find the right type of support for her.

Gaining Inspiration

After her diagnosis, Taylor was scheduled for a lumpectomy. For support, she felt her family, friends and faith community were enough. Following her lumpectomy, her surgeon recommended mastectomy. Again she felt she was getting all the support she needed. The social worker she spoke with at her hospital agreed.

Then after her mastectomy, she began chemotherapy. "I was feeling really sick," she remembers. During this time, she first heard about a support group called the Lunch Bunch. The Lunch Bunch is a peer support group with an open membership. What makes it unique — and what appealed to Taylor — is that it draws its members together at a new restaurant every week to enjoy life, not just to discuss cancer.

Membership in the Lunch Bunch had a profound effect on Taylor. She received a type of support her family, friends and faith community couldn't provide no matter how well-meaning. She was now meeting new women every week who were leading full lives in the face of their disease. "It gives you great hope to see women who have survived," she explains.

Risks And Rewards

Cynthia Taylor's experience provides a good example of how a woman can find the right group — one that makes the right impact at the right time — among the many available choices. She's been meeting with the Lunch Bunch for five years and continues to find inspiration from the women seated around her at a new restaurant table every week.

Since her retirement, Taylor has also become a volunteer with Reach for Recovery, a patient services program of the American Cancer Society. Reach to Recovery isn't a support group. Instead, this program brings a woman who is newly diagnosed with breast cancer together with a breast cancer survivor. The purpose of this meeting is not to provide medical information or to foster a life-long supportive relationship, but simply to offer hope. It can also sharpen a woman's understanding of just what type of support she'll need to cope effectively with her diagnosis.

Taylor points out that membership in a support group is not without risks. When a member of the group dies, it can exact a terrible emotional toll from other group members. A member may experience feelings of guilt if she's the healthiest in the group, or increased depression if she is obviously the sickest. The group dynamic may make some women uncomfortable, increasing their stress.

However, what Taylor knows for certain is that women facing breast cancer do benefit with some type of support. "Seek support somewhere," she advises the community of women with breast cancer.

Aetna Member: If you are a female member of an HMO-based plan and would like more information about breast cancer and breast cancer prevention, please call (888) 322-8742.

Miembros de Aetna: Si tiene un plan HMO y desea más información sobre el cáncer de seno y la prevención del cáncer de seno, por favor llame al (888) 322-8742.

Last updated June 11, 2008