Cancer: When the Diagnosis Is Cancer (cont.)

Support for Those Who Need It

Forman is not alone in her response. A recent study, published in the March issue of the American Psychological Association's journal Health Psychology, found that women may indeed be disturbed by the self-help group experience, and tests of their physical well-being showed some detriment in their ability to function.

The study looked at 203 women recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Most of them had early-stage disease, and all had a good prognosis. The women were randomly assigned to an education group, a peer discussion group that did not include an educational component, a group that provided both education and peer discussion, or a control group. All groups, except the control, met one hour a week for eight weeks. Each week the education group had a visiting expert -- a nutritionist, an exercise physiologist, or an image consultant, for example -- lead the discussion. The peer group was led by an oncology nurse and an oncology social worker trained to facilitate support group discussions.

Lead investigator Vickie S. Helgeson, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says that in the educational groups tests of the participants' emotional and physical well-being indicated that more people had a positive experience rather than a negative one. The benefits were greatest for those who were having the most difficulty coping with their illness. These women were more likely to be receiving little support from their partners or had negative interactions with them, and had low self-esteem.

Women who fit a similar profile also appeared to benefit from the peer support group. However, Helgeson says, she and her colleagues were shocked to find that women who were satisfied with the support they received from their partners, family, and friends didn't fare as well. Some of them seemed to have actually deteriorated slightly on tests that measured their quality of life, including pain, physical functioning, limitations caused by physical and emotional problems, vitality, and social functioning.

There are many possible explanations, report the study's authors. For instance, the women who thought their support was adequate may have reconsidered when they heard the negative stories of women who didn't have good outside relationships. Helgeson tells of a woman who said her mother-in-law was kind and gracious, yet she repeatedly told stories of this woman's unhelpful behavior during the support group sessions. The group finally told the woman that her mother-in-law actually sounded very mean. As a result, the woman's perceptions of her relationship might have been altered.

Support Group Pitfalls

The comparisons that people invariably make when they hear others' stories aren't always helpful, as Forman found out. "If you hear that another woman with your condition is not doing well, you may feel threatened and more worried about your condition," says Helgeson.