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The remarkable ways social support can improve cancer outcomes

A hug can mean every thing in uncertain times.
A hug can mean every thing in uncertain times. (Pexels.)

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Many people think that a support group for cancer patients will be depressing or filled with tragic stories. But often the opposite is true. These meetings can be filled with hope, humor and laughter as members share their trials and triumphs.

Recent studies have confirmed what many oncology nurses, social workers and patients know — that social support is one of the most important variables in our recovery from illness. Such studies are significant because they emphasize that whole-health approaches can lead to more favorable results.

Strong Bonds and Community Ties

On the flip side, no or low social support can have the opposite effect. Women diagnosed with colorectal cancer who reported low social support experienced 42 percent higher mortality than those who claimed high levels of support, according to researchers at Kaiser Permanente.

Their findings build upon previous studies of women with breast cancer, in which strong social support improved patient outcomes. Living status — whether a patient was single, cohabiting or married — also played a factor. Because personal connections, community ties and household status lead to a significantly lower mortality rate, patients are encouraged to strengthen these networks.

This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise since humans are social beings, and the perception of being loved and valued makes a difference.

Beneficial Forms of Social Support

For those who are recently diagnosed but lack a robust support network, perhaps because they are widowed or divorced, or have relatives living thousands of miles away, these findings may initially be worrisome. But even if your current circle of friends and family is thin, you can work with your care team to bolster your support. Organizations can offer a range of resources and tools for patients and caregivers. These, along with oncology nurses and staff, can assist in connecting you with support networks, including professional and peer-based groups.

Many support groups may be online or telephone-based due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless, they still allow patients to share their experiences with each other and feel heard and validated in a space that is absent of caregivers, who may accidentally “miss the mark” when attempting to meet patients' emotional support needs.

My Friend Has Cancer — How Can I Give My Support?

For those with cancer or other long-term illnesses, social support can come in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes alleviating logistical burdens can allow patients to focus their energy on treatment and management. Helping someone you know with practical matters such as work or school — or reaching out and asking for help if you’re the patient — can go a long way in helping those struggling with the illness to feel cared for and valued.

Support may include:

· Grocery or meal delivery

· Driving the patient to/from a doctor or hospital appointment

· A check-in call or brief visit

· Help with pet care and/or house cleaning

· An online fundraiser

Finding the Right Group

Some patients may initially be reluctant to join a support group because of preconceived notions of what that will look like. But support groups aren’t just about sharing your stories and feelings. Social support also lends itself to symptom-management ideas, as patients often talk together and find out different ways they’ve dealt with issues such as nausea and fatigue.

Ultimately, patients are individuals, and there isn’t one-size-fits-all for cancer support. That’s why it’s important to try out several different types of support and support groups to figure out what will work best for you.

Are you interested in learning more about the Orlando Health Cancer Support Community?

The Cancer Support Community is an international non-profit dedicated to providing support, education, and hope to people affected by cancer for over 30 years. Orlando Health believes that conventional western medicine is the best approach to combat cancer and other diseases, but there are complementary paths to aid healing by treating the whole person in a cohesive balance of mind, body, and spirit. As part of this initiative to treat the whole person, we are pleased to announce that we have become an official affiliate of the Cancer Support Community.

Learn more about the Orlando Health Cancer Support Community.