When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re filled with questions and bombarded with confusing information.
It can be overwhelming.
That’s the point where you might consider joining a support group. It’s only natural that you’d want to share your concerns and hear from others who have been through the same thing.
When you think of cancer support groups, you probably envision a large group of people sitting around a meeting room. Those groups work well for a lot of people.
However, if you’re introverted, shy, or simply feel lost in the crowd, a smaller group or one-on-one partnership may be more beneficial.
The Patient-Mentor Support Model
Woman to Woman is a support program at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Division of Gynecologic Oncology and Social Work Services.
It’s a one-on-one support system for women in treatment for gynecologic cancer. The program also provides information to partners and families.
Arden Moulton, M.S.W., has served as coordinator of the program since its creation 13 years ago. In an interview with Healthline, Moulton said a survivor and her doctor inspired the formation of the group that pairs patients with mentors.
She explained that the program currently has 15 carefully screened mentors who have been through cancer treatment. Ideally, they wait a year or two after treatment so they can be emotionally and physically recovered before becoming a mentor.
The mentor’s role is to provide information and emotional support. They initially receive eight hours of training. Then they’re matched with patients based on their needs, diagnosis, and other factors.
“You need to be ready to do this,” said Moulton. “You have to be empathetic and an excellent listener. It’s a very important role.”
Mentors allow relationships to evolve at their own pace. They share their own stories when prompted by patients.
Monthly meetings provide ongoing training for mentors.
The women also have the opportunity to meet in larger groups a few times a year. The programs are based on their interests, such as wellness, sexuality, and nutrition. Partners and families are also invited.
“It’s less intrusive,” said Moulton. “They can bond around a project.”
New participants can proceed as they wish. They can meet with a mentor one time or keep it up all the way through survivorship. The program is designed to suit individual needs.
“I believe in whatever works for someone,” said Moulton. “I’m happy when anybody gets the help they want.”
The mission, said Moulton, is to help women feel supported throughout the process and to create lasting relationships.
Moulton believes it’s an important adjunct to a healthcare system that can sometimes feel rushed.
“You hear all these scary words and you’re terrified,” she said. “This is a very easy, inexpensive way to lower anxiety and feel you’re being listened to and supported. It’s very important to the women we work with.”
Dr. Monica Prasad-Hayes is a gynecological oncologist at Mount Sinai. She sees patients through surgery, post-op, and chemotherapy.
She often refers her patients to the support group program. Because she is involved in continuing care, she’s in a position to get feedback as her patients progress through treatment.
“Emotional well-being while in treatment is very important,” she told Healthline. “It’s definitely a program that supports a healthy outlook. Patients develop relationships with each other. Some who finish treatment and continue to stay in touch with each other go on to become mentors.”
The Woman to Woman group focuses on gynecological cancers, but Prasad-Hayes thinks it has the potential to be applied to any number of diseases and cancers in general.
“A unique aspect of this support group is that it is one-on-one mentoring. It’s very powerful and has become a successful program nationwide,” she said.
‘Magic Can Occur’
Other smaller support groups are proving beneficial to cancer patients.
“Magic can occur in a group when it’s well-facilitated and held,” said Cancer Support Community Massachusetts South Shore program director Kathy Armany. “You’re essentially creating a space that’s very safe for people, and you hold them in that space. They feel free to share concerns, feelings.”
Armany told Healthline that most people come in saying groups are not for them.
“I find the best group sizes are anywhere from four to 10,” she said. “Sometimes 12 show up and it can work, but if someone is having a really bad day and needs to talk for 30 minutes, you want to make sure they’re given that time.”
People rarely become overwhelmed in these groups, said Armany.
“I’ve been in groups where one person speaks about the blessings of the disease and what it opened them to, and the person next to them wonders how they could ever say such a thing about cancer,” Armany said. “What’s important is that they can talk about it and consider another perspective from their own.”
Armany has a medical background, but she’s also a cancer survivor. She knows what a difference a support group can make.
“I valued everything Western medicine had to give me, but I knew from the core of my being that it wasn’t all there was for me,” she said.
Getting Beyond Cancer
Another goal is to build a life bigger than cancer.
“We don’t want to minimize the experience, but cancer shouldn’t be their entire definition. We hope they will get beyond cancer,” said Moulton. “The goal is that at some point we won’t be needed, although many love to stay connected.”
Julianne Bond and Evelyne Momplaisir are cervical cancer survivors who met through the Woman to Woman support program.
Bond, who has been cancer-free since 2003, supported Momplaisir through her chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Now they’re both cancer-free and the bond they formed through the mentor-patient program is still going strong.