Support Groups: Strength in Numbers

Therapists have promoted the concept of support groups for decades, and now research supports their theories that it can have a positive impact.

When you receive a cancer diagnosis, it can feel like an isolating, lonely experience. Your family, friends and caregivers provide love and assistance, but it can be difficult to connect if they have never lived with cancer.

A 2007 study from leading psychotherapy researcher, Dr. David Spiegel, replicated findings from his earlier studies showing support groups improve the quality of life for cancer patients. But that’s just one potential benefit of group therapy for cancer survivors.

The Power of Support Groups

Quality of life is something that can’t be understated for cancer survivors. While it may not directly extend your lifespan, quality of life does affect your comfort and wellbeing. Dr. Spiegel’s research, as well as other studies, has shown support groups have a positive effect on:

  • Mood
  • Pain
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

These quality-of life-factors can have a profound impact on how well you withstand treatments, which can have an effect on recovery.

Another common result of attending support groups is improved coping. Spiegel’s studies have seen this connection as have other, more recent research. In 2012, a study conducted by Suvi Saarelainen determined support groups were an external factor that could help survivors make a positive adjustment to cancer. Participants noted support groups as being beneficial in their coping with the hardships of cancer.

Support groups can also help people change their mindsets from feeling helpless to feeling like survivors. Working off of Viktor Frankl’s theory of self-transcendence, Dr. David Kahn and Dr. D. D. Coward studied breast cancer patients who joined a support group. After interviewing the participants at multiple stages, they discovered women experienced a positive shift in their mindsets. Bonding with the other participants gave the women comfort and the desire to change their priorities in life. They also experienced an enhanced appreciation of life and found meaning in their experiences.

Your experience during diagnosis, treatment and survivorship will be unique to you. But the goal of support groups is to help people connect with individuals who are going through similar circumstances. Building this common bond can prove to be highly beneficial for cancer survivors, which is why support groups are now becoming a regular part of cancer care. 

Support Groups Come in Many Forms 

When people think of support groups, they often think of people sitting in a circle sharing their thoughts and feelings with each other. While that is one type of support group, today cancer survivors have options. 

Online Forums

The arrival of the Internet has been a huge help for cancer survivors around the world. In addition to being able to access information in seconds, you can also find a wide variety of online forums and support groups. These forums allow you to post topic discussions, get insight from others, share your own experiences and get to know people going through similar experiences. 

Many people feel comfortable using this type of support group because they are available 24/7 and offer anonymity. It’s a great place to start if you’ve never used a support group before. 

Phone Support Groups

Since 1999, Jane Levy, the Director of Patient Assistance Programs at CancerCare, has held a weekly phone support group for women with stage IV breast cancer. She’s found this type of support group provides a number of benefits. "The nice thing with a phone group is that it is portable. You can follow the women as they go on vacation or even to the hospital,” says Levy.

Phone groups also provide anonymity for those who want it, support for people living in rural areas without services close by and support for people who are too ill for a face-to-face group meeting.

In-Person Support Groups

Traditional support group therapy involves in-person meetings, but this method can be used in many forms. Oftentimes they are weekly meetings with a skilled moderator or therapist and a small group of cancer survivors. However, some people choose to participate in intensive weekly retreats or online video chat groups.

Finding Your Support Group

Today, cancer support groups are much more prominent than in years past. No matter where you live, there are options for finding support from others who understand what you’re going through and want to help.

Below is a short list of organizations that provide support-group therapy both online and offline.

  • Your Healthcare ProviderYour doctor is one of the best resources for finding an ideal support group. Discuss your desires and concerns about participating in support therapy to get assistance selecting a group.
  • National Cancer Institute. The government-run National Cancer Institute has a directory of more than 100 cancer support groups. This resource can help survivors and caregivers find targeted groups for a specific type of cancer.
  • Inspire Community. The sole purpose of Inspire is to provide people with support by connecting them with others. Inspire hosts a large selection of health communities and is a trusted partner for many national cancer organizations.
  • WhatNext. American Cancer Society’s WhatNext program offers community support, and members can read thousands of firsthand experiences from other survivors.
  • Absenger Cancer Education Foundation (ACEF). The Absenger Cancer Education Foundation (ACEF) is focused on improving the quality of life for people living with cancer or chronic illness and their caregivers. The organization offers a variety of educational materials, classes and programs for cancer survivors.


This material is furnished for informational purposes and is for your personal use only. It is not intended as a substitute for the expertise, judgment and specific advice of your doctor. Based on your condition and treatment plan, you may have different medical needs. Please talk to your doctor before making changes to your care plan.

Finding Support.  Adapted Excerpt January10, 2013, from