Cancer Support Groups Aid in Developmental Process of a Cancer Diagnosis

Given the hardships cancer can have on an individual and their loved ones, support groups can be a useful tool in navigating the new normal.
BY Kristie L. Kahl
PUBLISHED August 13, 2019
A cancer diagnosis takes a toll on the mind and body of a patient as well as their loved ones.

To help assist with these challenges associated with a cancer diagnosis, its treatment and beyond, Dr. Allison Forti feels that support groups are a great outlet for patients and their loves ones to utlize.

CURE spoke with Forti, who is an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University, about the value of support groups, as she gave an example of one particular patient who served as an advocate for them.

CURE: To start, why is it important for patients and their loved ones to seek patient support? Or counseling?
Forti: Being diagnosed with cancer, I think about it as a developmental process. From the second a physician tells a patient they have cancer, patients at that point don’t hear anything after that. That is where loved ones step in. From the beginning, it is such a shock that they have been diagnosed with cancer. So, that is a good time to get counseling just to process what is happening, the shock. But as patients go through treatment, there are other things that compe up for patients and for family. Counseling can be a time to process that. Sometimes, patients don’t feel comfortable talking with family members about what they think about their diagnosis, or their treatment or how they are feeling, or especially some of the existential thoughts that they are having. So, counseling is a really great service to have for patients to process those types of things. Certainly, if they go through treatment and they find out that they have had a recurrence or there are no other treatment options, counseling is helpful to process that as well and gain support. Loved ones are at risk for burnout, and they try to remain strong for the person who is going through treatment. So, counseling can be a place for loved ones to regain energy and process their own grief around a loved one having cancer. Counseling is such a vital service for people who are going through something that is certainly traumatic. Even if the diagnosis is really good and there are great treatment options, it is a game changer for most people.

Is there any one patient story you can think of that sticks out most in your mind?
When I think about cancer, I am always thinking about different ends of the spectrum because how you cope when you’ve been diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer and how you cope when you’ve been diagnosed with stage 3 or 4 pancreatic cancer or you know you have good treatment options or poor treatment options. So, there is one person who I can think of who was diagnosed with a later-stage cancer and her prognosis did not look great. The way that she coped was to immediately seek counseling and support groups. She quickly realized that she was going to need more than her family and friends to get through this. So, she connected with other people going through a very similar process as her and she accepted the ups and downs that come with the experience of going through cancer. She did not beat herself up when she had bad days. When she had days that she felt bad or discouraged, she didn’t add to the distress by also beating herself up of “Why can’t I do this better?” Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to do it and she really accepted her own process that she was going through. She later became a role model in our groups for people who would enter the group at an earlier stage for their cancer process. She would share stories of how she felt and what she did. I think not only did she help other people through that process, but it also gave her a sense of identity and a sense of meaning in her own struggle. If she could help other people with cancer, it made her own experience with cancer easier to tolerate. She sought support early and had a lot of self-compassion for herself and served as role model for other people, but she was also extremely good at communication with her oncologist. That is something that makes a big difference in how people cope with cancer. You should feel your own agency in your health and ask your physicians the hard questions. She had no problems asserting herself throughout her treatment. That made the world of a difference. One thing she would do is to encourage other people in the group and ask their doctors questions, go in ready to feel safe and secure. You can play a very strong role. So, she was good at advocacy for that.
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