Many of us have experienced the power of a kind word, sincere hug, or shared moments of active listening to lift our spirits during difficult days. For people with cancer, connecting with others can be as effective as certain therapies or lifestyle practices in improving survival, helping manage symptoms and side effects, and bolstering psychological resilience.
Clinical research and integrative health experts affirm these claims. Clinical practice guidelines from the Society for Integrative Oncology give the strongest level of recommendation to support groups and supportive/expressive therapy as part of a multidisciplinary approach to improve quality of life and to reduce anxiety, mood disturbance, and chronic pain.1Deng GE, Frenkel M et al. Evidence-based clinical practice guidelines for integrative oncology: complementary therapies and botanicals. Journal of the Society for Integrative Oncology. 2009 Summer;7(3):85-120. Survivorship care guidelines from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommend psychosocial support for people with neuropathic pain or chronic pain syndromes.2NCCN Guidelines for Patients: Survivorship Care for Cancer-Related Late and Long-Term Effects. National Comprehensive Cancer Network. 2020.
So what exactly is meant by social support? The National Cancer Institute’s Dictionary of Cancer Terms defines it as “a network of family, friends, neighbors, and community members that is available in times of need to give psychological, physical, and financial help.” This may suggest that social support is primarily drawn from a community that a person with cancer is already a part of at diagnosis, and while that may be true in some cases, many people with cancer wish to expand their support communities beyond people they already know. Our hope is to guide you through some of the possibilities.
Before we begin the list of options, it’s important to acknowledge that an approach that works well for one person may not work well for another. We encourage you to try to keep an open mind, but also to honor what feels most comfortable, and proves to be most helpful, as you move through the process of growing your support community. It’s okay to try one or more things and decide they aren’t right for you.
Options for social support
Support groups provide a space for people with similar concerns or experiences to share their experiences, learn from each other, and encourage each other. Buddy programs are also available for one-on-one support. Healing Circles Global is a nonprofit whose vision is to provide positive social support to anyone who asks for it.
Retreats offer an opportunity to spend concentrated time together with others who are living with cancer and who wish to both offer and receive support. While retreats traditionally gathered in person, some are now offered online. Commonweal’s Cancer Help Program has been holding retreats for people with cancer for more than 40 years.
Some organizations, as well as individual cancer survivors and thrivers, offer one-on-one support, workshops, podcasts, and more to lend their expertise and support to people at various points on the cancer journey. Coaches may also be called cancer navigators, patient navigators, or patient advocates, and they vary in their professional training. This option may be more suitable if you are seeking specific advice on concerns like treatment decisions, communicating with your care team, or financial or legal issues.
Online communities and discussion forums
These offer a way to share and receive information and support on a range of topics, some more medically oriented and some more personally oriented. Inspire is a platform used by over 35 different cancer organizations including the Lung Cancer Association, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and Fight Colorectal Cancer.
Classes and workshops
Classes and workshops for people with cancer and survivors that encourage interaction among participants, such as Q&A sessions or discussion groups, can be another way to grow connections. Many cancer support organizations offer classes and workshops in person or virtually.
You may also derive a sense of community and connection from exploring writings and recordings by people with cancer and survivors and those who work with them. Many options are available.
These links to specific resources span the support options above as well as provide additional guidance.
Support in general
Retreats, classes, and workshops
Recorded conversations from The New School at Commonweal
Janie Brown and Host Michael Lerner: Face to Face, Heart to Heart: Two Friends Share Learnings from More than 300 Week-Long Cancer RetreatsPlay video
Lindsay McDonell and Host Michael Lerner: Your Dance with Cancer: A Conversation with a Metastatic Breast Cancer ThriverPlay video
Recorded conversations from CancerChoices
Final thoughts: no such thing as too much love
Ruth Hennig, a two-time breast cancer survivor, shares this in her story on CancerChoices: “Having cancer has taught me about the primacy of love. I’ll simply encourage all of us to express it and embrace it without hesitation as often as possible. There’s no such thing as too much love. I’m enriched by my loving friendships with humans and animals alike. I am grateful for every loving encounter that comes my way. And like any muscle, the heart grows stronger when it’s exercised, even metaphorically.”
We all differ in the types of support that we need, and in how much we wish to share with others about our experiences. But we all benefit from being held in empathy, compassion, and connection—and our bodies often show us.
May the support you find brighten your days, lighten your heart, and nurture deep healing.
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