Cancer Support Groups
Discover Connections and Understanding
By: Ellie Foster, MPH
Program Manager, Learning Resource Center
Scott Keysor was just 46 years old when he was diagnosed with cancer. Going to a support group at the Cancer Community Center in South Portland gave him the special connections and understanding he needed. I had a ton of support from family, friends, and everyone at work, “ he says. “The difference with support group members is that they knew what I was going through without me telling them. They got it. There is no one right way to react when dealing with cancer. Often there is a range of emotions like shock, anger, sadness or disbelief. Friends and family members can provide a great support network, but they can also struggle to relate. Support groups can be a place to share what you are going through with a group of people who understand.
Support groups also provide a safe space to just listen and reflect. As Scott points out, people use support groups in different ways. Some people come every week while others come once in while or even just once. Some people come and just listen much of the time. The facilitators are very skilled at making sure that every group member feels supported. A group can also be a place to share knowledge; or talk cancer stuff -- like managing side effects, what to expect with different treatments and how to talk to about your cancer journey with family, friends and co-workers.
Is a support group right for me?
When you are dealing with a cancer diagnosis, you have a team of people involved in caring for your medical needs. But emotional care may be missing. That's where support groups come in. During a stressful time, a support group can offer a special kind of support hard to find elsewhere -- shared experience and a firsthand understanding of what you are going through. Members of your support group get it.
The National Cancer Institute recommends asking these questions before deciding to join a group:
- How large is the group?
- Who attends (survivors, family members, types of cancer, age range)?
- How long are the meetings?
- How often does the group meet?
- How long has the group been together?
- Who leads the meetings - a professional or a survivor?
- What is the format of the meetings?
- Is the main purpose to share feelings, or do people also offer tips to solve common problems?
- If I go, can I just sit and listen?
Where to find a support group?
While many folks find that support groups are a good fit, some people may have a different response. Hearing about other people’s struggles with cancer may make them feel worse. While participants often gain a lot of benefit from support groups, they are not for everyone. Also, each support group is different based on the personalities and needs of the participants. So it's a good idea to check out a few support groups; find one that feels like a good fit for you. You may even be able to find an online support group, so that you don't have to travel. Maine has many opportunities for support groups from York to Fort Kent. Some are offered at hospitals while others are at cancer resource centers. Get the full list of groups here.
Tips for joining a support group
- Contact the group before showing up. There often is a designated group leader to take those calls and emails. Sometimes group times or locations change without notice.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out and make a connection. Support groups can offer a much needed sense of belonging and community during what can be a very stressful time.
- Take things at your own pace. Newcomers may choose to just listen, rather than share in the beginning. That's OK to do.
- Shop around. If a group doesn't feel like a good fit, it's ok to find one that does.
- Ask yourself this silly question: Is my support group making me feel supported? If you have feelings of anxiety or worry about your support group experience, it may not be the right fit. Talk to the facilitator and find out how to get the most out of your meetings. Or, if it doesn't feel right, move on to another group or another activity that helps you feel better.
Have you ever participated in a support group? We'd love to hear your experiences.
We'd like to thank the Cancer Community Center for the help with some of the content for this post.