Developing Social Support to Improve Cancer Outcome

Cancer support groupThe physical factors affecting cancer progression and recovery such as nutrition, exercise or rest are the most common topics of discussion but emotional factors such as social support are rarely discussed. Research confirms that a solid social support system helps cancer patients by reducing stress, anxiety and depression; it aids in the emotional adjustment to the disease, enhances wellbeing and improves overall quality of life.[i] On the other hand, a lack of social support is associated with less beneficial health behaviours and increased psychological stress – both of which can influence the immune system and promote tumour growth.[ii][iii] With this in mind, we at myWholeLife have created this manual to share information on three important sources of social support to help you through your cancer journey.

When dealing with a cancer diagnosis, support from those closest to you is essential; the absence of this type of support is strongly linked to poorer cancer survival.[iv] [v] Your close friends and family are there to provide a sense of security, love and comfort; to show concern, and to listen without judgment. Your care team provides important informational support: doctors and nurses offer treatment information, advice and suggestions for tackling problems. The third pillar of social connection comes from a support group of those who are walking the same path. Connecting to a cancer support group may help you in developing your coping strategies, reducing fear and the feeling of being alone in your experience in addition to improving your overall ability to adapt emotionally to cancer.[vi]

Communication is essential when it comes to establishing a network of social support. Emotions such as anger, sadness, confusion and helplessness are normal when you are dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Allow yourself to experience and express these feelings freely with your support network. Keep loved ones in the loop about your treatment progression; let them know when it’s okay to ask you questions and when you just need them to listen. It is common to feel like relationships change after a cancer diagnosis: you may not want to feel ‘babied,’ or like you are being treated with kid gloves. If this is happening for you, you can let your family and friends know that it’s okay to express concern but that you don’t want to be treated any differently. However, don’t feel that you have to carry the weight of this experience yourself; if you feel that having a loved one accompany you to appointments would be helpful, don’t be afraid to ask.

Communicating with your medical providers may seem difficult at first, but with time it will feel more natural. Thinking about questions you want to ask and writing them down before your appointment is a great way to ensure sure your questions get answered. If there is something you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to ask for further explanation. Your care team is here to support you, not the other way around. If you’re unsure about your doctor’s therapeutic suggestions, keep in mind that while they do have your best interest at heart, it’s your body and your choice. Be honest and straightforward about your feelings and concerns and let them know about any side-effects you’re experiencing. If you find yourself in the hospital, don’t try to be the ‘perfect patient,’ if you are uncomfortable or need something, ask for it.[vii]

Finally, it takes courage to open up and share your personal experiences, your emotions, your fears and your concerns with a cancer support group but you may find that doing so will provide you with a sense of comfort (since you will be with people facing similar issues). It provides the opportunity to compare notes on resources such as doctors and alternative options. [viii]  You may even find a particular connection with another member of your group so don’t be afraid to approach them and ask them to meet-up outside of the sessions. Having a friend who is going through similar experiences can be invaluable for your emotional health.