By Roberto Blanco, M.D.
This last fall a colleague and I developed and co-led a support group for Young Adults, aged 18 to 25, who had survived cancer. As we collected feedback at the end of the group, here are some of the comments that we heard:
“I never knew that anybody else experienced this and felt this way too.”
“It’s so nice to finally know that someone else can understand what I’ve been through.”
This group experience helped to diminish the isolation their cancer experiences had caused these patients to feel. Many of them had been diagnosed with cancer as children or adolescents and it would have been virtually impossible for their peers to understand. Many had been cancer-free for many years and still had found few people that could relate. While we also discussed issues of autonomy, independence, self-esteem, dating, fertility, wellness, and survivorship, this connection through shared experience was the main benefit of the group for these patients.
Like my group of Young Adult Cancer Survivors, there are many groups for a multitude of illnesses, diseases, and situations. Goals of these groups vary and can include providing support and education, encouraging abstinence from problematic behaviors, restoring previous functioning, teaching coping skills, providing new defenses or techniques for managing difficult situations, decreasing social isolation, and helping people achieve common goals. Some groups recruit members once and only last for a set period of time whereas others are more open-ended and members can come and go as they please.
The attraction of group therapy is the opportunity for personal growth through learning from peers. Some people feel that support groups are less intimidating than individual therapy because they may not like to talk for fifty minutes or may prefer to have less of the focus on them. They can sit and gain valuable knowledge or skills while letting the more vocal members of the group talk. Others feel that sharing their story in front of others who understand is cathartic and relieves burdens.
However, face-to-face group therapy is not for everyone. Those people who are deathly afraid of speaking in front of people but still want to learn from peers might prefer online support groups and communities. While some of the interpersonal benefits of in-person groups may be lost, valuable knowledge and support can still be gained behind the protective screen of a computer.
Support groups can be found by contacting your local chapter of NAMI. Also, many large academic medical centers have a list of support groups within each medical specialty. Most centers that offer mental health services usually also offer support groups as part of their array of services. Even colleges and universities often have support groups for students attempting to finish dissertations or who are struggling with independence issues.
For those looking for support groups online, NAMI has online support communities as well. Other support groups can be found at Supportgroups.com, WebMD and The Wellness Community.