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The Importance of Social Support during Cancer

by Barbara L. Andersen, PhD

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Having cancer can be an isolating experience. But during this time, social support is very important. The challenge for you is to figure out what type of support you need, from whom to get it, and how long you will need the support. For people with many social connections, friends and family are good resources with which to begin. For those with few relationships, healthcare professionals, peers, and other cancer survivors may instead provide solace and support.

Why Social Support Is Important
We seek close connections with others because, from these relationships, we gain attachment – the feeling of bonding and security with another. Close relationships provide guidance, advice, and support when it’s needed. Relationships, by definition, provide social integration with another, including a sense of shared values, interests, and companionship. They also allow for reciprocation, the opportunity for you to provide nurturance, love, and care in return. When you feel like you have support, you feel cared for, loved, and valued. Support from friends, family, spouses, social organizations, your church, and other sources can provide satisfaction with life and all-around better physical and mental health.

Close relationships provide guidance, advice, and support when it’s needed.

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Dr. Barbara Andersen

How Stress Plays a Part
Stress influences our physiology, our mind, and our behavior. With something as significant as the diagnosis of cancer, your confidence in managing the stress that comes with it can plummet. Knowing that support from others is available and adequate provides you with a tremendous resource, even if you may not realize it, by helping you cope with stressful events and reducing your stress levels. Without support from others during cancer, stress can linger and possibly worsen, and you face an increased risk for depression. Additionally, chronically stressful relationships, such as a difficult marriage, can also cause depression, slowed recovery, and increase the risk for health problems.

How to Find Support
If you feel you need more support than your current relationships can provide, seeing a mental health professional could be helpful. In addition to standard face-to-face therapy with a psychologist or counselor, many hospitals offer support services and group resources, including specialized support groups for specific cancer types. Even if support groups are not available, most communities have educational programs for cancer survivors.

Before you join a support group, find out who is leading the group and what their prior training is. You might also want to know what kind of survivors usually make up the group (for example, the newly diagnosed, people with recurrence, or breast cancer survivors). It’s important to find a group whose membership and focus is tailored to your needs and concerns. You might also ask for a referral to former members to ask about their experience with the group so you can make a decision.

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Dr. Barbara Andersen is a professor of psychology at Ohio State University and is known for her work on the biobehavioral aspects of cancer. She also trains mental health professionals to deliver the From Cancer to Health intervention, cancertohealth.osu.edu.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2013.

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