Years ago support groups for people diagnosed with cancer were often frowned upon or dismissed as "touchy-feely." Many believed that talking about their feelings or asking for help were signs of weakness. Some even feared that meeting others with similar problems would fuel depression and self-pity.
Times have changed, however, and so have theories about the value of talk. Today more and more hospitals are offering emotional support--via groups and one-on-one counseling--as part of the standard treatment for rehabilitation. Earlier this year, the National Cancer Institute, together with two other groups, launched a national campaign to raise awareness of the vital role emotional support plays in enhancing quality of life for people with cancer. Some research suggests that support may even increase longevity.
With a little help from strangers--it makes sense that emotional support from a caring circle of close friends or family would buffer the stress suffered. But many patients say they lack open communication within their families. As research and the experiences of many people have borne out, involvement in a support group comprised of others in the same boat can fill a unique void.
Among the most telling studies was a 1989 investigation led by Stanford University researchers. They evaluated 86 women with breast cancer that had already spread to other parts of the body. Fifty of them attended weekly support group meetings for at least a year in addition to receiving standard medical treatment; 36 received only medical interventions. Not surprisingly, women in the support groups reported feeling less anxious, less depressed, and less bothered by pain than the women who had not participated in the meetings.
A more remarkable finding came to the fore years later. The women in the support groups survived an average of 18 months longer than the others. In fact, four years after the study began, one third of the participants in the support groups were still alive, while all 36 of the other women had died. This year the investigators re-examined the medical records and death certificates of the women and found that such factors as differences in medical treatment did not account for the discrepancy in survival rates between the two groups. Some experts believe this strengthens the case for support groups.
Experts also speculate that emotional assistance confers physical benefits by decreasing stress. Depression overworks the body's stress response system, and it may be that participating in a support group helps lift depression.
Thus, a group of peers can be a place where people can vent some of their feelings without suffering guilt about burdening an intimate partner or friend. While research on the mind-body connection and cancer is still preliminary, there is no doubt that emotional support can ease psychological stress. Support groups that were once considered ancillary aspects of treatment have moved into the mainstream, playing an integral role in enhancing--and possibly prolonging--the lives of millions of people.