Thinking about joining a cancer survivors support group, yet not sure how to find the right one for you? Maybe you’re not sure you want to join a support group, and are trying to figure that out. Here’s what to consider when thinking about joining a cancer survivors support group and – should you decide to join one – how to choose the right one for you.
[A Quick Note: as with many of my articles, the term “cancer survivor” means someone who has been diagnosed with cancer and is either currently undergoing or has finished treatment and is not metastatic (similar to the definitions used by the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship and the National Cancer Institute).]
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The Benefits of a Cancer Survivors Support Group
Being a member of a cancer support group can bring you new hope and help you to not feel so isolated. Cancer survivors have a lot going on within their body and mind that’s difficult to deal with. A cancer survivors support group is a safe space to:
- connect with others who are facing the same challenges and therefore understand what you’re going through;
- share your experiences;
- get practical advice from the trenches;
- develop better coping skills; and
- talk honestly about how you feel.
Although you have family and friends who are providing lots of support, they don’t understand what you’re going through. But fellow cancer survivors do. Besides, you may not want to keep burdening your family and friends with so much “cancer talk”.
It’s thought that support groups can reduce anxiety and stress while also improving your ability to cope. And cancer survivors certainly need that!
What You Need to Consider Before Joining a Cancer Survivors Support Group
Once you’ve decided that you want to find a cancer survivors support group, what’s next? It’s not time to start researching groups just yet. First, you must take into consideration 3 things so that you’re more likely to find a group that’s a good fit:
#1: What Do You Want and Need?
There are many groups out there, each with a different focus, membership base, and leadership style. Narrow down your options before getting started with your search by considering things like:
- Group Focus. Do you want the focus of the group to be more supportive in nature or more educational?
- Group Membership. Do you want to be a part of a group with only those who have ended treatment or include current patients?
- Group Leadership. Would you prefer it be run by people who are trained or by cancer survivors themselves?
- Local vs. Online Group. Do you want the relative anonymity of being part of an online support forum/group, or do you prefer to meet with people in person?
This process will help you get clear around exactly what you want out of a support group so that you can easily identify the potential groups that will and won’t be a good fit for you.
#2: Can a Cancer Survivors Support Group Meet Your Needs?
Cancer survivors support groups can do wonders for your mental and emotional health. They’re great for making deep connections, helping you not feel so alone, and making new friends. And they might even help with ways to deal with the stress and mild anxiety caused by your cancer journey. But they don’t provide therapy or counseling.
If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, it’s important to reach out for help from a professional therapist. And if your marriage or other relationships are struggling because of your cancer journey, a cancer survivors support group won’t be able to adequately deal with that. Please reach out for appropriate help when needed.
[Recommended Reading: for more about how depression and anxiety commonly affects cancer survivors, read What You Need to Know About Cancer Survivors and Depression and Anxiety].
#3: Practical Stuff: How Often, How Long, and Where
Once you’ve figured out what you want and whether a cancer survivors support group can meet your needs, it’s time to figure out the practical stuff. Ask yourself questions like:
- How often do you want to meet?
- What areas of town would work best for you?
- What time of day would be easiest to meet?
Even if you choose an online support group, it’s good to consider some of the above questions. Some online groups might have regular Zoom or other videoconferencing meetings.
You’ll want to set clear boundaries around what will and won’t work for you before searching for a support group. Otherwise, you might feel pulled to join one that doesn’t work logistically and therefore won’t work out in the long-run.
5 Tips to Help You Choose the Right Cancer Survivors Support Group for You
Once you now what you want out of a cancer survivors support group and what will logistically work for you, it’s time to start searching. Here are 5 tips to help you make the right choice when looking at the various support groups that you’ll come across:
Tip #1: Check How Active They Are
Some cancer survivors support groups are more active than others. And you’ll likely find a few groups that no longer meet. Pay special attention to how recently they’ve met, how often they meet, and how long they’ve been around. This will give you a better idea of whether or not the group is likely to stick around.
Tip #2: Research the Logistics
You set your boundaries around the practicalities of when, how long, how often, and where you want to meet. Now it’s time to pay close attention to these 4 criteria when looking at potential groups.
Although it might seem like this shouldn’t be that important, you’re less likely to be active in a group that doesn’t meet your practical needs. That doesn’t mean that you can’t join one that’s further away than you’d like, but it’s something you’ll want to consider carefully when making your final decision.
Tip #3: Identify Their Focus
When researching potential groups, find out what the focus of the group is. Is the focus primarily on support through group meetings where everyone has a turn to talk about what’s going on? Or do they provide regular educational opportunities.
To help you figure out the primary focus, take a look at the mission statement or other descriptions for the focus of the group, the type of meetings that have been held over the past year, and the typical membership (e.g., whether membership is primarily cancer survivors who are no longer in treatment, patients, or a mix of both).
Once you identify the main focus of the group, compare that to what you wanted to quickly narrow your list.
Tip #4: Research Their Leadership
When considering the leadership of a cancer survivor support group, look at whether they’re professionally trained or primarily made up of cancer survivors. This will invariably affect the focus of the group, as trained professionals are likely to be able to handle a larger range of issues that could come up.
Additionally, check out any resources listed on the group’s website (assuming they have one) and talk to group members and leadership before joining. Ask leadership how they deal with potential issues that are likely to come up, such as depression or medical questions.
Interview a few members about the organizational structure and the pros and cons of the group in their eyes. This will tell you a lot about the group and its leadership.
Tip #5: Attend Group Meetings
There’s no way to know whether you’re a good fit without attending a few meetings. Once you’ve narrowed down your search to a few potential candidates, attend the meetings of each.
I recommend attending at least 3 meetings for each local group you found interesting before making up your mind. Yes that takes time. But wouldn’t you rather spend that time on the front-end (so that you can find the right group) rather than quickly joining a group that you realize several meetings in isn’t the right fit?
How to Get Started
Now that you’re clear around what you want and how to identify the right group, it’s time to get started and find your perfect fit. Here are a few ways to get started:
- Ask your doctors, nurses, and other cancer survivors. It’s likely that your caregivers will know one or more local groups that might be a fit. And plenty of other survivors will know as well. Don’t be shy, ask around.
- Research online. Many groups will have websites, so a search of “cancer survivors support group” or “cancer support group” will help get you started. You can narrow it down by adding your City.
Finding the right cancer survivors support group is possible, with a bit of research.
Until next time…