A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Cancer support groups offer experience and education

Man and woman taking time outdoors - Cancer support groups

Cancer support groups create a sense of community with others who have or survived cancer.

Learning you have cancer, undergoing treatment and living with side effects can trigger strong emotions.

Family members and health care providers are wonderful support systems and sources of information, but they may not understand what it feels like to have cancer.

Support groups are places to learn from the experience of others living with cancer, exchange information and share feelings. If you’re hesitant to attend a meeting, give it one chance. You’ll probably be thankful you did, said Rich Nesbitt, a physician assistant and facilitator for the Us Too prostate cancer support group in Marshfield.

What to expect at your first meeting

“Some people think coming to a support group means sitting in a circle and sharing their stories,” said Amanda Boreen, a registered nurse and facilitator for Women Living with Hope, a breast cancer support group in Weston. “You can share your story, but we also incorporate life skills that help members cope with cancer treatment and survivorship. Participants really learn from each other.”

Meetings are really informal,” said Ron Berry, a 24-year cancer survivor and member of the Us Too group in Marshfield. “There are no ignorant questions. Everything is handled respectfully.”

Meetings include structured activities and time to meet other members, ask questions and share stories. Us Too meetings usually include a speaker. Women Living with Hope meetings include either a speaker or a wellness activity.

At your first meeting, you can expect to introduce yourself by name. You can share as much or as little about your cancer experience as you want, said Cheryl Vircks, an oncology nurse and facilitator for the Weston Us Too group.

It may help to write down any questions you want to ask before coming to your first meeting.

Learn about cancer and complications

Knowledge is power when it comes to living with cancer. Knowing more about your illness and its side effects can make it easier to handle the situation.

Medical experts regularly speak to the Us Too and Women Living with Hope groups. Speakers share information about prostate or breast cancer treatments, side effects and other topics like heart health, nutrition, advance directives and hearing loss.

Some members attend every meeting and others come for the sessions they’re interested in.

Berry has learned about treatment options from speakers and other group members. “There’s more to learn even if you’ve been a cancer survivor for many years,” he said.

The purpose of a support group isn’t to push members toward a certain treatment option, but to provide experience-based information to help members make their own decisions, Vircks said.

Make friends and meet mentors

Support group members include people in all stages of their cancer journey, from newly diagnosed individuals to long-time survivors.

People who have been down the same road with cancer have a lot of credibility and are valuable resources to people who were just diagnosed,” Nesbitt said.

“A lot of men are hesitant to talk about the issues that happen with prostate cancer, like incontinence,” Berry said. “Some of us who are more comfortable share our issues and how we handled them.”

Support groups are also a way to make friends with people who have gone through similar experiences. Members laugh together and some meet for coffee outside the group.

Support for partners

Some support group meetings, including Us Too, are open to patients’ support persons. Support persons also want to learn about cancer, treatment, side effects and how it affects their loved one and families. They can learn how to provide and get support.

Attending a meeting for the first time may be more comfortable if you can bring your partner.

“Some meetings are men-only so our members can ask questions they feel uncomfortable sharing around women,” Nesbitt said.

Support groups at Marshfield Clinic

Marshfield Clinic offers a variety of cancer support groups for patients and families in central, north, northwest and western Wisconsin.

Breast cancer support groups

Cancer support groups for men

General cancer support groups

Cancer support groups for children and teens

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