Imagine that you have just received the news that a family member or a friend has been diagnosed with cancer or that, perhaps, you have received the same diagnosis.

What does it mean? Where can you find information? Who can you talk to?

Many times when something happens to us, such as an illness like cancer, we search for others that have had the same experience. In today’s world, we often find these people by seeking out a support group. A support group is a group of people who have similar experiences and concerns and who meet in order to provide emotional help, advice and encouragement for one another.

Support groups may seem like a recent idea, but they have grown from services provided by faith and fraternal organizations and build on certain supportive functions carried out in our extended families. Other types of groups formed to support causes are more often called advocacy groups, interest groups, lobby groups, pressure groups or promotional groups. Trade unions and many environmental groups, for example, are interest groups.

Cancer support groups provide a setting in which cancer patients can talk about living with cancer with others who may be having similar experiences. Many people find that joining a support group helps them manage their feelings and fears. According to the American Association for Cancer Research, support groups can help you cope with your diagnosis, increase your knowledge of the disease and its treatment, reduce depression, decrease anxiety and improve your quality of life.

There are many different kinds of support groups and not all groups are the same. You may need to “try on” a few groups before you find the right one for you and support groups are not for everyone. Begin by asking your health care provider for support groups in your community. The Internet is also a very helpful resource.

Some groups meet in person and many meet online or by phone. There are groups that are professionally facilitated as well. Groups are usually led by a health care professional, such as a social worker or counselor. A number of groups are chaired by a cancer survivor. Groups are disease-specific, such as breast cancer or colon cancer. Some groups will be age- or gender-specific, such as young adults or women. Groups vary by how long they meet and if they are on-going or time-limited, for example eight weeks at a time. There are groups for family members, spouses, friends and children.

If you are interested in joining a support group, take the time to find one that is right for you. You can contact the coordinator before attending or joining. Ask how many people are in the group, how long it has been running and who leads the group. Most support groups are free of charge, but if there is a fee, contact your health insurance provider to see if it is covered. Remember, you can leave a group that is not a “good fit” and try another. The best support group is the one that works for you.

The above recommendations were from the Cancer Support Community in Washington, D.C., and the American Association for Cancer Research. The Northeast Regional Cancer Institute is happy to help direct you to additional resources about cancer support groups as well.

The Northeast Regional Cancer Institute is a nonprofit, community-based agency working to ease the burden of cancer in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Focusing on community and patient services, hospital and practice support services and survivorship, 100 percent of Cancer Institute resources are invested in this region.  For more information about the cancer institute, visit www.cancernepa.org or call (800) 424-6724.