Support Groups

Support groups are classified as a mind-body technique by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). There are numerous support groups available, focusing on a variety of topics. The group setting provides an opportunity for participants to learn from and support one another. Although often led by trained professionals, including nurses, social workers, and counselors, support groups may also be led by a peer or community facilitator. Support groups are different from group or individual psychotherapy; psychotherapy is problem-focused and analytical – identifying ways to solve specific and long-standing problems. Support groups use discussion and group communication to identify resources, provide emotional and social encouragement to improve the quality of life of persons affected by a chronic illness.

How do support groups work?

By sharing similar experiences within a caring environment, cancer survivors and family members are able to bring greater understanding to emotionally overwhelming events. This reduces stress and strengthens one’s ability to cope more effectively. With decreased levels of stress hormones circulating, there is less suppression of normal immune function, which may reasonably contribute to an increased quality of life. It is interesting to note that a recent study indicated that positive effects begin to occur after 12 weeks of active participation. Shorter periods of participation were not strongly associated with lasting benefits.

Are support groups right for me?

Most support groups are available at little to no cost to participants, and may be held in a variety of locations such as hospitals, school classrooms, and community centers. Depending on the fit of the group with the individual’s needs, benefits may be seen with the first group meeting, and may increase as bonds strengthen between a person and other members of the group.  Support groups may be found with a quick internet search, through a local hospital, or one of the national databases. For support groups in Arizona or the Las Vegas Metropolitan Area search Support Groups.

How do I choosea  support group provider/class?

Finding a meeting time and location may be one of the most important factors in deciding which support group to attend. If meeting in person does not fit an individual’s needs, he or she may wish to find one of the groups that are available over the internet or the phone. However, one must be careful with online support groups, as these may not be properly moderated and may not protect a participant’s privacy. 

One must keep in mind that the subjects of these groups range from those with any kind of cancer to those with each specific type, and the level of specificity of the group is up to the individual seeking support. Another consideration in choosing a support group may include how long the group has been running. A more established group may indicate cohesiveness within the group and therefore, a greater capacity to provide the support one may be looking for. However, it is important to note that recently formed groups may be just as effective. One must also consider whether the individual would prefer to attend a group led by a lay person who is dealing with the same type of cancer, or if they would rather a group facilitated by a trained professional, such as a social worker.

How do I talk to my healthcare provider about using support groups?

Many healthcare professionals suggest that patients attend support groups to be able to hear from and share with others dealing with the same cancer. It is always beneficial for care providers to have accurate information on resources their patients may be using. Additionally, if a care provider is aware that a patient is benefiting from a support group, he or she may be more inclined to suggest them to other patients.

Have others with cancer used support groups?

These testimonies are typical of what may be found through many support group experiences:

  • "Being a part of Cancer Support Community has given me an opportunity to talk openly about my cancer experience--to begin to heal, and figure out the impact of my life as a cancer survivor." - 42 year old woman
  • "To receive the diagnosis of breast cancer is overwhelming and to have the opportunity to be with other cancer survivors is so worthwhile. I have learned how to improve quality of life, self-advocacy, stress reduction, and what other resources are available. In a group, we can all draw strength from each other." - 72 year old woman
  • "I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April of 2006, and felt as though the bottom of my world had dropped out. Having the opportunity to connect with so many incredible women who have experienced what I have gone through has been such a wonderful, positive experience." - 57 year old woman
  • "I am a two and half year cancer survivor who still needs the companionship and support of other women who have gone through cancer treatment. It is an emotional, spiritual, psychological and physical journey. It is so wonderful to be with women who are survivors who give me great hope that there is life." - 62 year old woman
  • "Thank you for being there when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I had so many questions and no place to turn." - 55 year old man
  • "I have participated in numerous activities offered by Cancer Support Community and have benefited from them in many ways. When I was first told about the support group meetings, I arrived and was scared and determined not to say anything, but within moments I opened up and shared my feelings and finally felt understood. The friendship, kinship, and sisterhood I experienced helped me greatly in coping with my diagnosis of breast cancer and empowered me to heal emotionally." 
  • "The Mending in the Mountains Women's Cancer Retreat was a life-changing event for me. It gave me an opportunity to give back as much support to others as I had received. The event was inspiring, fun, and a wonderful opportunity to share and be accepted and loved for who I am, whether I have had cancer or not. The many educational programs, taught me tools I could use for survival in dealing with my cancer diagnosis." 
  • "I would highly recommend Cancer Support Community to anyone affected by a cancer diagnosis, whether they are newly diagnosed, living with a previous diagnosis or someone who cares about a cancer survivor." - 55 year old woman

What are support groups like?


Where can I learn more about support groups?

The Mayo Clinic has further information on the value of support groups: is external) 

The American Cancer Society outlines some of the details of history and evidence: is external) 

Emory University has more information on the research that has been done: is external) 

On a website sponsored by Casa de la Luz, there is a listing of various cancer support groups in Tucson: is external) 

A list of support groups offered through the University of Arizona Cancer Center may be found here: is external) 

Various cancer resources available in Tucson can be found here: is external) 

Resources by location are included here: is external) 

There are 34 national agencies through which support groups may be found, located within the National Cancer Institute’s database: is external) 

The “support groups” link is found in the left margin, all the way down at the bottom.

Why should I use support groups?

Researchers have been studying the benefits of supports groups for over four decades. Benefits include:

  • Reduced incidence of depression
  • Improved mood and optimism,
  • Improved coping and coping resources,
  • Increased social support and a broader social network, and
  • Better understanding of illness processes, possible treatments and complications, available resources, and methods to improve overall wellbeing during cancer treatment and survivorship

Many people participating in support groups have report feeling more supported, cared for, connected to their community and others, and helpful to others. In addition, they report that support groups encourage optimism, a sense of purpose and power, and confidence in directing their treatment decisions. Support groups are also helpful for caregivers who report improved mood, increased social support, increased knowledge about resources and assistance, improved coping skills, and reduced stress.

Shana Graves , BSN Student , University of Arizona
Kelly Lawless , BSN Student , University of Arizona
Expert Reviewers: 
Mary Koithan, PhD, RN-C, CNS-BC , Director, Community Cancer Connections, Associate Dean, Professional and Community Engagement and Associate Professor , UA College of Nursing