Should You Join a Support Group?

Support groups aren't for everyone, but they can have powerful benefits, says Merijane Block, who has lived with cancer for 16 years and cofacilitates two San Francisco groups, Bay Area Young Survivors and Young Adults with Cancer at UCSF/Mount Zion Cancer Resource Center, in San Francisco. Block offers her insights on how to get the most from a group and how to find one that's a good fit.

By Merijane Block 

"I'm sorry. It's cancer." With four words, your life is upended. What do you do? Where do you go? How do you find the information and support you need?

One option is the cancer support group.

My history of participation in cancer support groups began in 1991 with my first breast cancer diagnosis; I received my sixth this year. My first group taught me how to live with cancer. I've been perfecting my skills and passing on what I've learned ever since. For over four years I have co-facilitated two support groups for young people with cancer, one specifically for women with breast cancer, and the other for women and men with cancer of all types.

I found that first group among the classifieds in a neighborhood weekly. I was relieved to find one that catered to my specific needs -- I sought information about alternative treatments for cancer -- while I was simultaneously terrified, and determined to hang on to my autonomy. Sometimes as many as 13 women showed up in my drop-in group.

We were different ages at different stages with different cancers, but we all wanted to know what else we could choose along with, or instead of, the standard offering of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. I was 38 and, until three months before, felt little need for conventional medicine beyond my annual visits to the gynecologist and dentist. My preferred form of medical care was acupuncture and I was well-versed in several kinds of non-Western healing traditions. When the lump found by my gynecologist turned out to be malignant, I naturally sought more unconventional ways to deal with it before going further with recommended treatment.

I received far more than information: Most of my breast cancer peers in that first support group had metastatic disease and were undergoing treatments through clinical trials for drugs that are now standard protocols. In my two years of attendance, I watched them navigate treatment failures and shift their priorities to choices about how to live while dying. I'm glad I had the fortitude to stay. I owe everything I know about living with a life-threatening disease to them. Four years later, my disease would metastasize, too, and all the lessons were there to guide me: the best practitioners; the appropriate treatments to add to the conventional methods I did choose; and the knowledge that we can keep on healing even as our disease progresses and, in some cases, outlives us.

Finding a Support Group That's Right for You
Support groups are great for many, but they're not for everyone. Like cancer treatments, they're not one-size-fits-all, but you can try them on and you can try more than one. Sometimes you have to shop around, just like you do with oncologists and treatment plans. They're not therapy, even when they're led by psychotherapists; they don't provide "treatment." An effective group should offer mutual support, a shared commitment to respecting members' choices, and an exchange of resources and wisdom rather than advice. This is a time for listening deeply to your needs, or, as a wise friend once proffered, to "follow your pulls." If you decide to investigate, here are some points to consider as you identify your preferences:

Some groups are led by peers, others by experienced counselors, nurses, doctors, psychotherapists, or spiritual teachers. Ask yourself which you prefer or try on a couple to answer that question.

Pay attention to where, and with whom, you feel most comfortable. A good place to start is a support group with women who have recently been diagnosed and are roughly your age. You may find, though, that you want to hear from a more diverse group of people with cancer. If so, seek out mixed-gender groups or multi-generational ones. For metastatic cancer, whether at initial diagnosis or recurrence, consider looking for groups devoted to this stage of disease.

Closed or Drop-in
Closed groups have the same members at each session, sometimes for a finite number of meetings. In this setting, some find it easier to trust and develop intimacy. Members may change frequently in drop-in groups, though often a core group develops and attends consistently. Drop-ins offer flexibility and the opportunity to hear new voices and viewpoints.

When starting out, or even when returning (if cancer recurs), you will most likely be focused on treatment options, decision-making, and the consequences and effects of your choices. It's a given that you will also delve into the emotional aspects of this major life transition and, if you are so inclined, into the spiritual. You may be drawn to groups designed for working with cancer through art, writing and other forms of creative expression.

Groups meet in hospitals, cancer centers, private homes, and non-profit organizations; also in synagogues and churches. Sometimes the location in a synagogue or church presupposes a spiritual or religious orientation to cancer, or it may be clearly stated as such.

Merijane Block lives, writes, tells stories, leads support groups, and thrives in San Francisco. She is constantly perfecting her practice of -- and commitment to -- fearless self-expression, the most potent medicine she's ever taken. For more on the support groups Meriijane works with, go, to BAYS (Bay Area Young Survivors) and Young Adults With Cancer at UCSF/Mount Zion Cancer Resource Center.

For more breast cancer articles, go to www.intent.com

Copyright(c) 2008 Intent.com

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