For years, research has proven that support groups improve the quality of life for its members. A recent study however, shows that not only the QUALITY of life can be enhanced by being a member of a supportive community, but so too can the QUANITITY. In other words, having a strong social support network may help you to live longer! (Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2013 Jan;137(1):261-71) In this study, researchers examined data from 2, 264 woman who had been diagnosed with early stage, invasive breast cancer, and the results are very exciting! While they did not look at cancer support groups in isolation, the researchers found that “Larger social networks have been associated with lower breast cancer mortality.” In other words, the more social supports and networks you have, through family, friends and social groups, the less likely you are to die from breast cancer. They concluded: “…women with both small networks and low levels of support had a significantly higher risk of mortality than women with large networks and high levels of support.”
That’s good news for me! In addition to the support I receive at my annual breast cancer retreat, I am also a member of a breast cancer support group called Sharing Our Strength (SOS), which was founded by cancer survivor, Joan Aucoin in 2003. Through both face to face meetings and our Facebook page, group members share with each other information, tips and most importantly, moral support through the cancer journey (which I call “the journey that never ends!”).
I polled the members of my SOS support group with an open-ended question: “What is the most valuable aspect of being part of this group for you?” I then analyzed the results, and found seven common themes, as follows (Hey! I am a Psychologist, so I am allowed to conduct my own research!):
– Belonging: By far the most common response reflected a sense of belonging to the sisterhood of survivors, and not being alone in the journey.
“I am a member of the most amazing group of Sistas there is!!! We support each other in so many way, from diagnosis to years of survival!! I personally felt so alone even though my mother and sister were there for me always. The day I walked into Joan’s house for the first time, with the lovely Sherry Bishop, I was so nervous and emotional I almost got sick, being a very shy person. We had our circle of friends (sharing session) and I realized that I’m not alone. What an amazing and reassuring feeling!! From that time on it was bring on whatever life throws at me because I’m no longer alone in this battle!!” (Lenora)
“I will never forget the first time I walked into Joan’s house, the hugs, love, strength, peace I received was amazing. I thought to myself, well I’m not the only one going through this terrible journey with cancer.” (Christine)
–Understanding: Another common theme involved being in the company of those who truly know and understand what you are going through, because they have been there.
“These people have felt the stab of hearing the same diagnoses: you have Cancer. They have felt the fear, worry and concern of wondering where this diagnosis will lead me. They have anxiously waited for the next test to be done, felt fear as the test was being done and lost sleep waiting to receive the results. They have felt concern wondering if the treatment would be successful. They have felt joy that it was successful and devastation when it wasn’t. They know what it is like to go on living always wondering will I be ok and for how much longer. Cancer has brought us together to support each other like no other person can, right down to the deepest emotions and feelings.” (Paulette)
“It’s good to talk to people who have gone through this and who really get it. As fantastic as my family and friends are, you really need to talk with people who have been there themselves.” (Donna)
–Acceptance: Several people reported a feeling of being in a safe environment where you are accepted for who you are, and you can share openly, without fear of judgement.
“For me, mostly, I think – IT’S A SAFE PLACE. No judgement, only support and sharing. These good people lift me up every day.” (Linda)
“For me this journey has me questioning who I really am. As a very curvy woman all my life, I now find myself struggling with my new GI Jane identity since my double mastectomy. At SOS, I can be real, raw and authentic and not get judged for it.” (Denika)
“Having a place to turn where they “get it” and there is no judgement, and the confidentiality given for any comment or fear.” (Judy)
–Emotional support: The research on support groups lists emotional support as one of the greatest benefits of being a member of a support group. It involves being able to share your fears and get comfort, strength and encouragement from other people.
“The strength and support that these women have given me over the past 6 years is second to none. No one fights this disease alone, and that is evident in this group. Just speaking through personal experience, I had a biopsy yesterday morning and at 7:30 am, two of these ladies were waiting with me, making sure I had all I needed. I left and went to chemo where I was surrounded by at least a dozen ladies from our SOS group. The support that surrounded me in that room made me feel kinda sad for the other patients receiving treatment. I just wanted to shout “These are my girls!!!!” I just wanted them to know what it felt like to be me in that very moment in time. The SOS Group is my extended family.” (Dana)
“SOS is my sisterhood in the most pure form. The ladies truly are my extended family.” (Heather)
“We feel each other’s’ joys and pain. We ride the peaks and valleys of this roller coaster ride. We help each other. We share with each other,,,,,hugs, smiles, laughter, information, knowledge, experience,,,,oh and wine (and food)! When we are together, or even just on our Facebook chats, we are wrapped in a secure safety net of love and healing.” (Erin)
L to R: Sharon Foster, Dana Blackwood Cox (receiving chemo), Joan Aucoin and Beverly Kelly
–Hope: This hope comes from seeing other survivors who are thriving, as well as from the words of encouragement and stories of hope you get from other survivors.
“I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer right from the start so I really thought the road had ended for me. I was young with three small kids and really didn’t know how I was going to face this journey, let alone get through it. Then along came Joan and all of her beautiful angels. They all showed me that not only can you get through this, you can also have fun doing so. They have filled my life with so much hope. My extended family sees this new hope in me and has in turn helped them get through this journey. I feel like I owe all of these ladies for giving me my life back.” (Nancy)
“The feeling of isolation when I was first diagnosed was deep and dark…the Internet was deeper and darker! Being together with these beautiful women replaced that dark isolation with flutters of hope, strength and undeniable sense of belonging….a feeling of “I am where I am supposed to be”. This group is my strength and safety and it fills my heart with love and gratitude.” (Sherry)
– Inspiration: Inspiration comes from observing how other survivors are living their lives, which then inspires you to want to live your best life.
“The inspiration from so many amazing women has been a life-saver and powerful motivator. Just knowing if they can do it, I can do it, too; and to be able to lean on one another when the need is there.” (Linda)
“For myself finding out that there are many survivors of breast cancer out there….cause when you hear the words ” you have cancer “…….well, it’s not a death sentence anymore.” (Madelyn)
“I am amazed at the courage these ladies have and how it encourages those who are a little scared.” (Beverly)
“Sometimes it takes something ugly to really see and understand beauty. I’ve never known anything as ugly as cancer, but I’ll never experience anything more beautiful than the love in this group of women.” (Kellie Ray)
L to R: Kerry Churchill Cheering on her SOS Sister, Diane Coffin
–Knowledge: On a more practical side, members benefit from the sharing of information about things such as treatment options, post cancer care, and reconstruction. This knowledge leads to a sense of empowerment.
“I have obtained a knowledge and understanding of breast cancer that I would not have gotten from reading.” (Madonna)
“They are full of knowledge and have filled my life with so much hope” (Nancy)
“One extremely important thing to me, especially in the last couple of weeks, is the honest, hard advice from my fellow sisters. Sometimes doctors don’t always tell the complete truth whether by choice or by innocent omission.” (Lisa)
“It has given me resources, information and tools to help me in my daily fight to be the best I can be with the life I have been given.” (Gen)
There is no doubt that being a member of a support group has enhanced my life, and that of my survivor sisters. With this new research proving that having a strong social network and social support improves your odds of surviving cancer, well, I plan to be an SOS member for a very long time!