There are different types of online support groups to accommodate patients’ and caregivers’ diverse needs. Many groups have an open format, which means they have no time limit and few restrictions on who can participate. Others follow a closed format, in which members must register before participating.
CancerCare‘s online support group model resembles a message board structure and is asynchronous, as opposed to a live chat. This type of group is only accessible to registered members, and is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Participants can write comments, answer questions, and read and respond to posts from other members—all at their own convenience and free of charge. All of CancerCare‘s support groups are moderated by licensed oncology social workers, though other organizations’ groups in this format may be moderated by volunteers or patient assistance professionals. Working with a professional oncology social worker may help patients and caregivers feel particularly safe to share difficult feelings, and may provide them with deeper insights into their situation and experiences.
Several professional organizations host online groups, including the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org). Some cancer-specific organizations, such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (www.lls.org) and the American Brain Tumor Association (www.abta.org) provide message boards. They may also provide referrals to support groups.
Online support groups are also available in a listserv format. This format allows members to email questions and comments to every member of a mailing list. (Note that the number of messages members receive may be high, as emails are sent to all members on the list). One such listserv is the Association of Cancer Online Resources (ACOR) (www.acor.org). A third online support group format is the chat group, in which an online conversation takes place in real time. Online chat groups are generally held at a specific time and day.
Patients and caregivers who benefit the most from online support groups, unsurprisingly, enjoy writing, are comfortable communicating online and have easy access to the internet. When choosing to recommend an online support group to a patient or caregiver, consider what format would best suit them. Is the group open, or closed? What is the structure? Are members’ identities protected? Is there a moderator? What are his or her credentials? With the increase of internet-savvy patients and caregivers, you should familiarize yourself with the numerous options available for online support.