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Is a Support Group Right for You?

Support group faciliatator and social worker Susan Abrams gives you the inside scoop on support groups and what to expect if you join.

By Beth Brophy

Each year thousands of women with breast cancer participate in support groups to help them cope with the disease. Some are informal gatherings and others are led by trained professionals. But support groups may not be for everyone.

Beth Brophy speaks with Susan Abrams, a clinical social worker who has been working with breast cancer patients and their families for more than 30 years in Bethesda, Md, and the Washington, DC area. Throughout her career, Abrams has spoken at medical conferences on various aspects of breast cancer.

Why would someone with with breast cancer want to join a support group?

Support groups started because 20 or 30 years ago, no one talked about having breast cancer. Women felt isolated. They had to deal with it completely on their own. These days, women have many more options for talking about their breast cancer, yet some women still remain isolated. They would benefit from joining a support group.

What are the characteristics of some support groups that you’ve led?

A closed group of 5 to 8, sometimes 10 people, who meet for one and a half hours per month. I like a mix of people, of various ages, and a combination of those newly diagnosed with some people years out of treatment. Sometimes those farther along can help those who are recently diagnosed. There are no fixed discussion topics or speakers. Instead, the group focuses on what’s going on in people’s lives, and they talk about how they are doing.

Other groups may be larger, with 20 to 30 people, and they invite guest speaker to discuss specific topics.

How long does the average support group last?

I’ve had a few groups for 10 to 12 years, but that’s unusual. As time goes on and people move further along, breast cancer is only discussed half the time. In addition, the group also discusses other areas of people’s lives.

What are the benefits of joining a support group?

It depends on the person. Support groups meet with an expressed purpose: Helping people cope with a disease. Groups can work for people at different stages in their lives, ranging from the time you are first diagnosed through years after treatment has ended.

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