Oncologist-approved cancer information from the American Society of Clinical Oncology
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Support Groups

This section has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 10/2011

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Key Points:

  • Support groups can help people with cancer gain emotional and educational support throughout their cancer experience.
  • Many types of support groups are available, and there are many resources to help you find one that is best for you.

Having cancer is often one of the most stressful experiences of a person's life. Support groups help many people cope with the emotional aspects of cancer by providing a safe place to share experiences and learn from others who are facing similar situations.

Reasons to join a support group

Hearing the news of your cancer diagnosis triggers a strong emotional response. While some people experience shock, anger, and disbelief, others may feel intense sadness, fear, and a sense of loss. A person may also feel lonely and isolated, as even the most supportive family and friends cannot understand exactly how it feels to have cancer.

Support groups offer the chance for people to talk about their experiences with others living with cancer. Group members can share feelings and experiences that seem too strange or too difficult to share with family and friends. The group experience often creates a sense of belonging that helps each person feel less alone and more understood. Sharing feelings and fears with others who understand may also help reduce stress.

In addition to sharing their feelings and experiences, support group members discuss practical information, such as what to expect during treatment, how to manage pain and other side effects of treatment, and how to communicate with health care providers and family members. Exchanging information and advice may help achieve a sense of control and reduce feelings of helplessness.

Many studies have shown that support groups help people with cancer feel less depressed and anxious and more hopeful. Although support groups are not for everyone, people who benefit from support groups may find themselves better able to handle their emotions.

Types of support groups

Some groups offer support through counseling and therapy and others through information and education. Supportive groups focus on allowing people to share and discuss their cancer-related experiences. Groups led by group members are often called peer or self-help groups. A trained counselor, social worker, or psychologist may also lead these groups and help facilitate the discussion among the members. Another type of group called informational support groups are led by a professional facilitator and focus on providing cancer-related information and education. These groups often invite speakers, such as doctors, who provide expert advice. Other groups combine both of these approaches.

Groups may also be designed for different audiences. Some groups are open to all individuals with cancer, and others are open only to people with one type of cancer, such as breast cancer or prostate cancer. Furthermore, some groups specialize in offering support to people of a certain age group or with a specific stage of cancer.

Support groups are also offered to caregivers, as family members and friends may need encouragement while learning to cope when someone they care about has cancer.

In recent years, Internet support groups have become more popular. These groups may be a good option for people who live in remote areas or for those without easy access to transportation. An Internet support group may allow people with rare types of cancer to communicate with others with the same type of cancer. Internet support groups may also be a good choice for those who do not feel comfortable sharing their experiences face-to-face.

Internet support groups allow people to communicate in a variety of ways:

  • Newsgroups and electronic mailing lists send messages written by group members to the entire group.
  • Discussion groups, message boards, or bulletin boards allow people to post a message so that others can reply to it.
  • Chat rooms allow group members to communicate with each other, in real time, by typing messages back and forth.

Read more about some online communities for support.

How to find a support group

  • Check with your doctor or nurse, or the hospital or medical center where you are receiving treatment. Many hospitals and cancer treatment centers sponsor support groups for their patients. A social worker or a member of the discharge-planning department at the hospital may also be able to help you find a community support group.
  • Find organizations dedicated to helping people with cancer.
  • Use the public library to search for information on support groups and cancer organizations. Ask the librarian for help.
  • Check the health section of the local newspaper for support group listings.
  • Ask other patients for suggestions.

How to find a support group that is right for you

Finding the right support group depends on your needs and personality. Some people may need emotional support, while others may prefer an emphasis on information and education. Some people may like sharing their experiences face-to-face with a group, while others may be more comfortable sharing in an anonymous environment, such as an Internet support group.

Some people with cancer may not be interested in joining a support group or may find that support groups are not helpful for them. For these people, other methods of support may be more helpful:

  • Talking with a friend
  • Individual counseling or psychotherapy
  • Asking a doctor or nurse specific questions
  • Focusing on other enjoyable activities

More Information

Caring for the Whole Patient

How to Find a Counselor

How an Oncology Social Worker Can Help

Additional Resources

CancerCare:Support Groups

National Cancer Institute: National Organizations That Offer Services to People with Cancer and Their Families

© 2005-2014 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). All rights reserved worldwide.

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