Let me begin with a disclosure. I have not attended a breast cancer support group so I can’t offer an opinion regarding their value.
But I think it’s an important topic, so I asked two women who know what they’re talking about. Stephanie Koraleski is a psychologist with the behavioral health program at the Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center in Omaha, Neb. Kristi Perrotto is a certified clinical social worker and cancer coordinator with the Saint Elizabeth Regional Medical Center Cancer Institute in Lincoln, Neb.
Stephanie said the first thing you need to know is that support groups vary widely. Anyone can put on a pot of coffee, gather in someone’s living room and call themselves a support group–and there’s nothing wrong with that. The key is to know what you want from a group. Medical facilities typically have groups with professional facilitators. Some of them just feature conversation; others have more formal programs and may invite speakers.
Each type of group has its pros and cons. “The downside of a support group is if it’s not professionally facilitated, it can become very personality-driven,” Stephanie said. (Sounds like a book club I attended years ago.)
If you don’t want to share or hear personal stories, you may prefer a group that has structured programs and speakers. “Some people don’t want to hear sad or scary things. If the one time you go to a group is the day someone found out her cancer came back, it could be very scary if you’ve just been diagnosed,” Stephanie said.
You also want to get a feel for the group’s dynamic. “I usually suggest that people not commit to anything until they’ve attended three or four meetings,” Stephanie said. Since all members won’t show up every time,one visit may not give you an accurate picture.
Whatever form they take, support groups offer a chance to make friends and ease fears. “Support groups can be an awesome way to feel grounded during a time of despondency,” Kristi said. “Talking to others who are going through a similar experience can reassure you that your thoughts and feelings aren’t so abnormal.”
Stephanie agreed. “No one can support you like someone who’s been there.”
Have you taken part in a cancer support group? What was it like?