If you have had a biopsy or surgery for breast cancer, or have started radiation or chemotherapy, you will already have experienced quite a range of emotions and stresses. It is common to feel betrayed by your own body, or angry at your situation, depressed, confused, and even tearful. You may feel very alone in your experience, or you may have relatives, friends, or coworkers who have traveled this road before you, and who are always ready to listen when you need to air your feelings. On the other hand, you may be more of a thinker than an emotionally expressive person, and prefer to process your experience privately, or perhaps through writing.
If you're at this point, you might be looking at cancer treatment as if it's a part-time job, taking up a lot of time, resources, and energy that you would rather spend in other ways. Along comes a well-meaning friend who suggests that you join a breast cancer support group, and you may get images of a roomful of weepy women wearing pink ribbons and comparing treatment side effects. Or, you may be fortunate enough to be referred to a high-quality support group with a clear structure, definite goals, and professional therapists in attendance. Either way, you might like to know if a support group would benefit you, if you committed some time and energy to it.
Researchers at Ohio State University studied a group of women who had just had surgery for breast cancer, collecting answers about their feelings of emotional stress, their support system, their diet and exercise, and their smoking habits. The women were also tested for how well their immune system was working. They were divided into two groups, one of which attended regular small group meetings on topics related to their health and treatments, and the other group did not attend any meetings. These women were similar in many ways: age, diagnosis, race, marital status, and menopausal status. At the end of four months, all of the women were interviewed on the same questions they had answered at the start of the study.
The women who had attended small groups showed improvement by reporting lower levels of stress and anxiety, improved feelings of support, and a reduction in smoking. Their blood was tested for T cells, a part of the immune system that helps the body organize its disease-fighting resources, and their resistance to disease was higher. The women in the second group, who did not attend small groups, did not show this kind of improvement.
This study suggests that you will benefit from attending a support group, because it can strengthen you in body, mind, and emotions, while you are in treatment. I was able to attend a professionally run support group that met for six weeks while I was going through chemotherapy. It was offered by the Breast Cancer Resource Center of Austin, Texas. My surgeon suggested that I attend, and he knew of groups in my area that were well organized and available free of charge. While attending, I learned about emotions, side effects, sleep disorders, lymphedema, and alternative therapies. I found that about half of the women in my group were dealing with, or had just triumphed over, the same things that were confronting me. We met an hour before each support group for supper, and just exchanged regular everyday conversation, cracking jokes and keeping up with each other's lives. Whatever we shared in the support group meetings was held in confidence, and we maintained that trust. When I had to go for a blood transfusion, the group members sent me cards and even a stuffed bear, to cheer me up. After the six weeks of official meetings, we still got together for parties, to keep up on the good times as well as the tough times.