The Importance of Social Support for People with Cancer

SBM: the-importance-of-social-support-for-people-with-cancer

Barbara L. Andersen, PhD; The Ohio State University
Caroline Dorfman, PhD; Duke University

The diagnosis and treatment of cancer can be an isolating experience. The challenge is how to mobilize yourself and those around you to help make it less so. Friends and family are the starting point. For those with few relationships, professionals, peers, and groups of other patients may provide solace and support. Here we discuss connections we have to others (our social network), the many benefits of support, and strategies for enhancing support to aid in coping with cancer. 

What Is the Relationship Between Social Relationships and Your Health?

Multiple studies across years have established a reliable link between social relationships and health. Relationships are “protective,” meaning those with more friends and/or family have better health and a lower risk for premature death of all types. Why (and how) does this occur?  

Social relationships can provide emotional connections, security, reassurance, and guidance.  Others can provide companionship, help, shared values and interests we hold dear, and an opportunity to provide nurturance, love and care in return.  Those who feel supported report better quality of life and wellbeing. If cancer comes, having friends and family capable of supporting you will provide “resources” to cope with stress, emotional turmoil, and all that comes with receiving cancer treatment and the lengthy recovery thereafter.

For those who are partnered, that individual is often the linchpin in one’s circle of friends and family. Of all partners, it is the one who is supportive that has the largest impact on emotional and physical wellbeing, in contrast to those who are negative or even those just “present.” In fact, a supportive partner may provide even greater benefit than having a non-spouse support person.7 Why might this be the case? 

Simply, living with a partner means greater availability of support, particularly so when the partner communicates openly with you or asks about your wellbeing and how best to help. Some spouses, however, become the protector in the hopes removing all sources of potential of stress. For example, a partner  may conceal their own worries, avoid even a hint of disagreement with you, or “hover,” restricting your routine activities or ones of importance to you.  Though often well intentioned, behaviors such as these may not be helpful. 

What Is Available to Help Patients And/or Caregivers? 

Group-based programs for patients have a long history in cancer, with more resources being devoted to caregivers in the recent years. Groups will differ from location to location, differ in terms of:

  • Membership
  • Duration of contact (e.g., one session only, one session a week across 8 or more weeks)
  • Training of the leader (e.g., a peer vs. a licensed mental health provider)
  • The content of the sessions

Regarding the latter, content models include:

  1. Support alone
  2. Information about cancer and its treatment alone
  3. Improving health behaviors (diet, exercise)
  4. Imparting specific skills (such as relaxation) to enhance coping and reduce stress
  5. And some that include all of these components.

Regardless of the focus, the opportunity to meet with other patients with a similar type or stage of cancer can be helpful, perhaps validating one’s experiences (a chance to say “maybe I am just crazy but….”), receive empathy (“That is just the way it was for me…”), and share one’s worries. 

At its best, support can come freely and without reciprocity “costs” one might feel when seeking support from a family member. In such a special setting, one may become more aware and accepting of one’s emotions, feel more in control despite the difficulties of cancer, and be more willing to accept help when offered (cancer patients are notoriously reluctant to “say yes” when offers of assistance come!).  If you decide to participate in a group, be as choosey as you were when looking for an oncologist, i.e., find one run by a skilled leader or therapist, determine if the treatment is evidenced based, and investigate the experiences of others who have been in the group.

Below, we provide some suggestions for enhancing support. Research has found that when patients use skills such as these, and do so in a supportive environment, their relationships with their friends and family members improve.

Some ways to enhance your support include:

  1. Identify your social network: individuals who you have regular contact with, either in person by telephone, or through letters/email, as well as those who you feel extremely close to but do not have regular contact. Try to identify at least 10 individuals
  2. Think about each individual’s capability for providing emotional support, task support (e.g., helping with household tasks, childcare, etc.), both, or neither.
  3. Make a list of your current needs for emotional and/or task support and try to “match” your needs to capable members of their network.
  4. Directly communicate your need to the person you would like to fulfill it (don’t go thru others with the hope that s/he will get it).
  5.  Be specific and clear. It is important that the person you are communicating with understands what you need.
  6. Make sure to own your message by using “I” and “me” statements rather than “you” statements (e.g., “I would like…” vs. “You should…”).
  7. Ask members of your support network for feedback. This can help to ensure that they understand the request.

It can be scary to think about asking others for support. You may have concerns that your needs won’t be met or that you will burden your family and friends. It is OK to ask for what you need! Try to make one request of emotional support and one request of task support each week.  And when offers are made (and it is something that would help), say YES!

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