Cancer & Online Support

How Online Cancer Support Groups Can Be An Important Part Of Your Overall Treatment Plan

“I am sorry, but you have cancer.”  Hearing those words from your doctor can be devastating.  Despite increased survival rates for many cancers, the news, whether anticipated or sudden, is almost always shocking.  Never welcomed, a cancer diagnosis always arrives at a time inconvenient to the patient and to their family and loved ones. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is scary and overnight it changes almost everything about life as you knew it.  A life where there was once order and a sense of security is immediately turned upside down.   A cancer diagnosis can lead to a complex and newly set of issues that a patient must navigate, often with no roadmap and little preparation or support.  

Days become filled with doctor appointments and treatments.  Treatments may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or a combination of the three.  Side effects of treatment are all too often marked by patient physical and emotional discomfort.   Yet, throughout your cancer journey, the focus from doctors, loved ones and caretakers is often on the physical components of the disease  Together your team of specialists work hard to make you as physically comfortable and strong as possible throughout your treatment and its aftermath.   The ultimate treatment goal is to restore your health, wellbeing and in many cases complete and total cure.  

But just as cancer affects you in physical ways, it just as importantly affects the that you think and feel.  However, all too often emotional support is an often overlooked aspect in cancer treatment.  Many cancer patients report feeling emotions that are new to them or that take them by surprise.  And sadly, many patients are unsure of how to address emotional concerns during their cancer treatment.  In a recent study of ovarian cancer patients, 79% of patients said that they felt uncomfortable raising psychological and emotional concerns during their consultations with their doctors.

Each person is unique and as such each person reacts in their own way to a cancer diagnosis and its treatment.   It’s normal to feel sad and grieve over the changes that a cancer diagnosis brings. It is also normal to fear uncertainty and a lack of control over the situation.  Some  people might feel anger or guilt, while others might be moody, fatigued and begin to isolate from others.  In response to unsettling emotions family and friends instinctually try to make you feel better.  And why wouldn’t they, they love you.  Yet, sometimes you might just need someone to listen and understand and not try to gloss over your emotions.

Patients commonly struggle with so many new questions at this time.  If your family and friends have never experienced cancer treatment personally, it’s probably difficult for them to understand exactly what you’re going through. Some patients may feel uncomfortable bringing these questions up with families and friends as they don’t want to burden or upset them or they don’t think they will understand their new found struggles.  Cancer patients often have questions that are deeply personal and unique to their diagnosis:

  • Does my cancer diagnosis mean that I am going to die?  If I die, what will happen to my partner or spouse?  Will my children be alright?
  • Will my treatment work?  Will it make me sick?
  • How will I tell my loved ones, friends and co-workers I am sick?
  • Will my spouse or partner still love me despite the physical changes from surgery? Hair loss? Changes to my body? 
  • Will I be able to continue working?  If I have to take time off, will I lose my job?
  • How will I pay for my cancer treatment? 

Cancer patients often commonly report that their cancer diagnosis has brought on feelings of loneliness and isolation.  With 1.8 million people in the United States expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year, there is no reason for any cancer patient to suffer alone.  Studies have shown that there are numerous benefits in sharing emotions, concerns and experiences with others that are living with a similar cancer diagnosis.  Finding and joining the right emotional support group for you can be a tremendous resource in bolstering your mental health. 

What can I expect from an online support group?

Joining a support group can help you to create positive and healthy new routines as you fight your cancer battle. Support groups allow people to talk about their experiences with others living through a similar experience. Talking about your feelings can help reduce stress and anxiety and make you feel more hopeful about positive outcomes.  Being part of a group can increase your sense of belonging, helping you to feel more understood and less lonely.  Today, technology allows us to host support groups online and in real-time.   With COVID-19 upon us this allows those with compromised immunity to connect with others in a safe and supportive environment. Online support groups also allow those who do not live in an area where groups are being held to find the support they need easily despite geographic barriers. 

Additional benefits of online support groups include:

  • Sharing Resources About Practical Information.  Support group members can exchange practical information with regard to treatment, side effects, and selfcare. They share what worked for them and didn’t.  
  • Finding Community With Your Fellow Warriors.  For many cancer patients joining a community with others experiencing a similar journey can not only be uplifting but it can be relief to find a place where you can be uniquely you.  There is no judgement for sharing emotions and compassion easily flows throughout the group.  Relationships often continue outside the group and include fun light-hearted events as well.
  • Transcend Feeling Like A Victim.  In a support group communication is a two way street filled with compassion, active listening and support.  Giving and receiving support is empowering and can allow you to have a self-awareness of your situation and that of others that you were unable to see before.  Just as you benefit from the group experience, you can also help other group members find the support they need as well.   Empathy and hearing how your stories and experiences positively help others can make you feel better.  Giving and receiving support is always a central goal of group therapy. 

Donovan HS, Hartenbach EM, & Method MW. Patient-provider communication and perceived control for women experiencing multiple symptoms associated with ovarian cancer. Gynecol Oncol 2005;99(2):404-11.

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