Men who have dependent children and whose spouses or partners have died from cancer are an overlooked population. These fathers face unique challenges not addressed by traditional grief support groups that often attract an older, female population. A successful pilot peer support program called “Single Fathers Due to Cancer” was created to help these men. The program is the first of its kind in the United States.

“The experiences of the current support group illustrate that men in crisis, when given a safe and supportive environment, express deep emotions, establish psychological bonds with other men, and use those connections and encouragement for healing,” said the study’s coauthor, Donald Rosenstein, MD, director of the University of North Carolina Comprehensive Cancer Support Program in Chapel Hill. The program’s development was described so that other institutions may develop similar initiatives and further studies can be done.

The group grew out of the authors’ work with families having young mothers who were dying of cancer. During the counseling sessions, mothers expressed concerns about how their husbands and children were coping with their terminal illness, and about how their families would cope after their death.

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Study coauthor Justin Yopp, PhD, also of the UNC Comprehensive Cancer Support Program, explained, “We looked for resources specifically for surviving husbands, but found none. We held a focus group to get a better understanding of the challenges these fathers faced and whether a support group might help.

“A central theme from this focus group was the feeling of profound aloneness as a parent that extended beyond the loss of a spouse, and the men shared a sense of ‘being in this alone’ with no viable road map or peers who could understand their struggles.”

A model for the support group was developed and a time-limited intervention planned with Rosenstein and Yopp serving as cofacilitators. Childcare was provided as well as meals since the meetings were held in the early evening to not interrupt bedtimes. The report of the program was published in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing (2013; doi:10.1188/13.CJON.169-173).

Yopp added, “The fathers appreciate the chance to talk with each other and share advice and feedback. The group format offers what neither individual therapy nor talking with family and friends can: a forum to discuss and process their experiences with others who could identify with what they were going through.”

The authors suggest several possible areas of study for such groups. They share a “vision that the experiences and information shared will spur the development of peer support groups at other cancer centers and medical facilities.”