December 30, 2019

Finding the right cancer support group

If you decide a support group is right, how do you choose the right one? To help answer that question, we spoke with Stacey Martens, APSW, a social worker with the UW Carbone Cancer Center and UW Health.

“Studies have shown significant benefits for cancer patients or caregivers who seek a supportive community when they are affected by cancer,” Martens says. “In general, there is no right or wrong answer to if you should join a support group, but if you decide to, it’s best to find the group that makes the most sense for you.”

Martens shares tips with us on how to find and select a support group. If you have any questions or need help getting started with support groups, please talk to your care team and/or ask to speak with a social worker at your clinic.

Finding a group

UW Health organizes or helps faciliate support groups to help patients and their family and friends meet their health challenges. View support groups

1. Which type of support group do you fit in with?

Support groups exist for many different types of people affected by cancer. They can generally be classified as patient-only, patient and spouse/caregiver, spouse or caregiver, close friend or loved one, or children (either children with cancer, or children of a parent with cancer). Some patients prefer being alone with other cancer patients; some prefer having spouses present. Some patients prefer to be in a group with others who have the same cancer type; some prefer to be in a similar age group. Some may want to participate in activities with other cancer patients where they don’t focus on their illness, such as a crafting or yoga group. In addition, some spouses and caregivers need a space where they can discuss their emotions in the absence of the person with cancer for whom they are caring. Children may need their own space, away from parents, to share their concerns. Think about what makes the most sense for you and give it a try.

2. Finding support groups

With all the different types of support groups, it is not surprising that there are many resources to help you find and choose a group. First, check with your clinic, especially social workers at your clinic, to ask for recommendations of local support group options. Both the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society have websites with location-searchable databases to help you find groups in your area. The American Cancer Society also runs the Cancer Survivors Network, an online community with discussion boards and chat rooms. Social media sites, such as Facebook, can also provide a closed support community of people with common cancer interests. If possible, try to ensure the group you choose is moderated by a social worker, psychologist or other health professional.

3. Is an in-person or online group better?

It completely depends on the person. Some people connect better face-to-face, whereas others prefer an online chat. It also depends on what is convenient for you – for example, the UW Health Brain Tumor support groups meets monthly in Madison, which can be difficult for patients who live far away to attend regularly. Groups without official meetings, such as online discussion boards, mean that you do not have to connect with the group at specific times. There are also one-on-one mentoring programs such as Imerman Angels that pair you up with someone with the same diagnosis but who is farther along in treatment and likely living in a different area. Communication is done via email, phone or text—whatever the two parties decide.

4. If you have joined a group and it does not seem to be helping, you can always try a different group!

Just as patients need to find a doctor or psychologist or clinic that they trust and respond well to, finding the right support group is no different. If you do not feel connected to the group you chose, or if you are not perceiving a benefit, try a different group. Maybe try an online group if an in-person one did not fit for you, or vice versa. And, there is nothing wrong with giving support groups a shot and deciding that in general they are just not right for you.