Erin ColumbusInternet access allows countless patients and caregivers to research their diagnosis online. Many of these same users may not realize that psychosocial support can be found there as well. Online support groups are a crucial lifeline for people facing cancer.

As with telephone and face-to-face support groups, online groups allow participants to connect with others who are in a similar situation. Members have the opportunity to share coping tips and practical advice. Most importantly, online support groups provide a virtual safe space in which members can voice their feelings, concerns, and anxieties without fear of judgment or reproach.

National nonprofit organization CancerCare recently sponsored an informal survey of 125 online support group participants. The results showed 88% of respondents acknowledged that “being part of an online group helped me feel more emotionally connected,” and 93% agreed that “participation in an online support group helped me feel less isolated.” A group member observes:

We are a community of very different people from very different backgrounds who find ourselves joined by the common thread of our similar experiences. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I was utterly alone in the world in what I was feeling only to come here and find that several people here faced the same fears and struggles.

Online groups are a relatively new medium in psychosocial care. Former CancerCare client Cindy B. acknowledges that participating in an online support group would have made a tremendous difference in her care. Cindy’s story is truly amazing—she is a 16-year lung cancer survivor who maintains an active lifestyle today, even working part-time to provide support and information to CancerCare clients. Cindy came to CancerCare in the late 1990s to attend a face-to-face support group to discuss her fears and anxieties.

“I wanted to talk to people who had gone through what I’d just gone through,” Cindy explains. Her support group helped her understand what to expect from life as a cancer survivor. “Being able to talk to people who had been there and could understand where I was coming from was what I totally needed,” she says. She adds, however, that she would have opted to participate remotely, due to lingering fatigue she experienced from treatment.

Side effects are just one of the barriers to face-to-face support group attendance. High transportation costs are an obstacle as well. While many treatment centers offer counseling and support groups, many of these groups are informational and do not address patients’ and caregivers’ emotional needs. Patients may also feel reluctant to return to their treatment center or hospital due to an association with unpleasant treatments. Geographic barriers may also be obstacles, especially for patients and caregivers in rural areas who may not have access to face-to-face groups. Online support groups can provide a vital feeling of belonging and community, regardless of any physical or geographical limitations. Many patients and caregivers understandably feel more comfortable participating from their own home. Others may prefer online groups because they can anonymously share their difficult emotions. Some groups allow members to communicate their feelings any time, day or night. This can be particularly useful for the caregiver, for example, who is sleepless at 2 am and wants to share how they are feeling.