Other common name(s): group therapy, group psychotherapy, psychosocial interventions, psychosocial treatment
Scientific/medical name(s): none
Support groups present information, provide comfort, teach coping skills, help reduce anxiety, and provide a place for people to share common concerns and emotional support.
Preliminary research has shown that many support groups can enhance quality of life, although some do not. Available scientific evidence does not support claims that support groups can actually extend the survival time of people with cancer.
How is it promoted for use?
People who take part in support groups believe that they can live healthier, happier lives if they spend time relating to others. They say that when they have emotional support, it is easier to deal with their health and social problems. Some claim that the bonds formed between members of support groups help them feel stronger. They further claim that sharing feelings and experiences within support groups can reduce stress, fear, and anxiety and help to promote healing. Evidence suggests that support groups can improve quality of life for people with cancer.
What does it involve?
Support groups may include education, behavioral training, and group interaction. People with cancer are often encouraged by health care professionals to seek support from groups of people who have experience with the same type of cancer.
Many different kinds of support groups are available, and they vary in their structure and activities. Some are time-limited, while others are ongoing. Some support groups are made up of people with the same type of cancer, while others include people who are having the same kind of treatment. Support groups are available for patients, family members, and other caregivers of people who have cancer, and even children with cancer in the family. The format of different groups varies from lectures and discussions to exploration and expression of feelings. Behavioral training can involve muscle relaxation or meditation to reduce stress and cope with the effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Topics addressed in support groups are those of concern to the members and those the group leader thinks are important.
Support groups are different from group therapy. Support groups may be led by survivors, group members, or trained professionals, while therapy groups are always facilitated by licensed professionals such as marriage and family therapists, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers. Group therapy is generally longer, more involved, and focuses on in-depth personal growth, whereas support groups focus on learning to manage current concerns and situations. Most support groups involve little or no cost to the participants, while there is usually a fee for group therapy. Support group meetings can be held in hospitals, school classrooms, community centers, office buildings, or in one of the group member’s homes.
Support groups also take place online. Participating in an online support group allows people to interact virtually, often by sending and receiving messages whenever they have the time to participate, or during scheduled meeting times. These groups vary widely in quality. Some are led or managed by moderators in chat-rooms or on e-mail lists, while others are not moderated.
What is the history behind it?
In the late 1970s, a type of therapeutic group meeting called an encounter group became popular, and group-intervention studies began appearing in a variety of science journals. An influential study by Dr. David Spiegel in 1989 reported that group therapy helped women with breast cancer to cope and live longer. The demand for support groups from people who have cancer has grown since then. Today, there are many hospital-based, independent, and national networks of support groups for people with various types of cancer and other diseases, as well as for their families.
What is the evidence?
The scientific community in general believes that support groups can enhance quality of life for many people with cancer. The groups do this by providing information and practical support to manage feelings of aloneness and helplessness that sometimes result from a cancer diagnosis. Research has shown that people with cancer are better able to deal with their disease when supported by others in similar situations.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that educational groups helped women adjust to a diagnosis of early-stage breast cancer. But some studies of support groups have shown limited benefits, and others reported that they provided no measurable help at all. The Carnegie Mellon study reported that some of the women in their group who were already getting support at home gained no benefit from the group. They also noted that there were some negative effects from the group discussion.
One clinical trial found that support groups helped reduce tension, anxiety, fatigue, and confusion. Some research has shown that there is a link between group support and greater tolerance of cancer treatment and ability to follow treatment plans. One psychologist found that an educational, supportive intervention resulted in more patients taking their medicines as prescribed, which led to an increase in survival rates.
Overall, research reports about the ability of group participation to extend life have been confusing. In Dr. Spiegel’s 1989 clinical trial, the group of women with metastatic breast cancer who took part in supportive group therapy lived 18 months longer than women who didn’t. Scientists later observed that his study had used average survival rather than median survival to compare the groups. Average survival can be greatly changed by one early death or one long-term survivor, so it can be quite misleading. When Spiegel’s groups are looked at using the median survival, which gives a clearer picture, there is no significant survival difference between those who did and did not take part in the support group.
Still, there was a lot of public interest in this topic, and more studies were done. A few of these studies seemed to show small differences in survival between support group participants and non-participants, although most showed no difference at all in survival.
Finally, Spiegel himself tried to repeat the 1989 study in 2007 with a new group to see if the result would be the same as that of their earlier trial. The 2007 study reported better quality of life among those who took part in the group, but there was no difference in survival.
In the last few decades, research has further shown that giving cancer patients information in a support group setting can help reduce tension, anxiety, and tiredness (fatigue), and may lower the risk of depression. Some other studies have shown that supporting cancer patients with keeping doctors' appointments and teaching them about their treatment during group meetings may help them follow their treatment plan as well as reduce stress. Keeping doctors' appointments and taking cancer treatments as prescribed may help people live longer, but this type of support is more medical and practical rather than emotional.
The research is clear that support groups can affect quality of life, but the available scientific evidence does not support the idea that support groups or other forms of mental health therapy can by themselves help people with cancer live longer.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
Support groups vary in quality and focus. People with cancer may find that the support group they have joined does not discuss topics of interest to them. Some people may find a support group upsetting because it stirs up uncomfortable feelings or because the leader is not skilled enough to manage difficult situations. Rarely, others in support groups might not respect boundaries or follow rules. Information that is shared in some groups may not always be reliable.
Online support groups should be used with caution. This venue cannot always assure privacy or confidentiality, and the people involved may have no special training or qualifications, especially if the group takes place in an unmonitored chat room. These are things a person would want to find out about before choosing a support group. There are reputable organizations that manage these issues carefully to help protect participants.
Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
To learn more
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-227-2345).
The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management
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Spiegel D, Bloom JR, Kraemer HC, et al: Effect of psychosocial treatment on survival of patients with metastatic breast cancer. Lancet. 1989;2:888-891.
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US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. Unconventional Cancer Treatments: OTA-H-405. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 1990.
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Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.
Last Revised: 01/16/2013