January 05, 2022
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I felt like everyone else in my life offered sympathy, but the support group offered understanding.
It was mammogram time for one of us, an annual event that always brings with it overwhelming “scanxiety.” My friend posted to Facebook from the doctor’s waiting room, sharing her nerves and fears with us. She knew our support group would be quick to respond. Sure enough, the comments rolled in:
“With you today!”
“Holding your hand across the miles.”
“Anxious to hear all is well.”
As we expected and hoped for, the doctors found that the lump was only scar tissue. Our group breathed a collective sigh of relief.
One of my things that made the biggest difference during my breast cancer treatment was having an online support group. These friends, women who knew exactly what I was going through, taught me about different treatment protocols, helped me maintain a sense of optimism, and provided relief and understanding when I expressed my deepest fears.
Beyond the support the group provided me through treatment, it also has helped me maintain a healthy view of my recovery as an almost 6-year survivor.
Research has found that quality of life during treatment can be improved by participating in support meetings. For women with breast cancer, being surrounded by others who are going through similar experiences can even reduce levels of anxiety and depression.
Connecting with others who understand what you are going through can help you find answers to questions that you may not find elsewhere.
Finding a community that makes you feel understood and supported can also lessen the amount of support you need from family and friends. Feeling safe enough to be vulnerable and open without fear of judgment or dismissal can also allow for deeper connections and friendships to develop.
“Feeling what we felt at the same time was something that connected us. I felt like everyone else in my life offered sympathy, but the support group offered understanding,” says one member of my group, Nancy DeFalco.
Stacey Maurer is a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Hollings Cancer Center. The hospital offers support group services for their cancer patients and has recently extended its offerings to include a new online version for those unable to travel to Charleston.
Maurer feels that the groups are an important resource. “Sometimes, just having somebody who can sit with you in your discomfort, sadness, or fear can be the most powerful support.”
Beyond impacts to your physical health, cancer can be a unique challenge for your mental health.
Maurer explains, “Cancer has a very clear beginning, a time before and a time after diagnosis. After that, there’s really never a point in time where we say that it’s completely in the past. Lots of things can bring up the emotional impact of cancer. We do know that people with strong support networks do better in the long run.”
My own group connected online in a forum for women going through chemo in 2016. The website that hosted was slow and laborious, and eventually, someone suggested that we just create a private group on Facebook.
A couple of people volunteered to administrate, another put a motivational quote and cute picture, and the rest of us found our way to join. For many of us, joining the group has been among the best choices we made during our treatment.
Another group member, Stephanie Barrett, sums up the general sentiment, “It has meant the world to me. We are like family.”
There have been triumphs and tragedies along the way. We’ve celebrated births of children and grandchildren, we’ve mourned losses in our lives, we’ve vacationed together, and showed off our new tattoos.
We’ve even hosted Bald Selfie Nights complete with wine, where we shared pictures of our lack of hair without fear of judgment.
Peggie Stevens hadn’t shared this side of her with anyone besides her husband. She explained, “I was very self-conscious about hair loss and never went anywhere without a wig or hat. Out of character, I jumped right in with the silliness when we posted and toasted our bald selfies online. It felt so freeing!”
For us, the Facebook group allowed us to remain in touch all the time. Kristyn McCarthy needed the constant conversation, “To come online every day and know there were people going through similar things as me was what I needed to get through.”
I felt isolated when I received my diagnosis. No one in my family had a history of cancer, and I was fairly young. It had never occurred to me that I should fear breast cancer. The group provided friends who understood my distress. I met young mothers and retired women alike who were going through the same diagnosis. I wasn’t alone.
We spoke about all of our side effects from chemo, radiation, and medications. The group also served as a resource, sharing information about the treatment the protocols offered at different hospitals around the world.
If something seemed strange or confusing in one of our treatment plans, the group discussion ended in a list of questions for a doctor. Jean Woods attributes the group with her recovery, “They were every bit as important in my healing as my doctors were.”
Other comments from the group are in the same vein. Julie Stewart says, “It’s everything. I don’t know what I’d do without this group.”
Paige Fletcher’s thoughts echoed this same sentiment, “Any time, night or day, I could go there for hope, understanding, compassion, and encouragement.”
It’s hard to fully put into words just how valuable the support group has been for us. Through it all, we’ve remained focused on meeting each other’s needs in the best way possible. We are a group of women caring for and empowering each other.
When I started writing this article, we decided to have a Zoom meeting as a group to talk about where this group had come over the years.
At this point, these women almost know me better than I know myself. One of them asked if I felt comfortable writing about cancer. I assured her that this article would practically write itself because I wanted people living with breast cancer to know how important a support group can be.
After the call, it struck me that even 6 years down the road, this group was still looking out for me. They are there to make sure I am feeling comfortable, safe, and supported. They are there to provide unwavering understanding. They are there to remind me that I’m still not alone.
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