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According to a recently published article in the journal Cancer, breast cancer patients reported experiencing benefits from participating in online support groups. This may be especially important for women living in areas that lack social services, such as small towns or rural communities.

Breast cancer claims the lives of approximately 40,000 women annually in the United States alone. Some cancer patients join a support group lead by a group therapist whose members are patients suffering from the same or similar disease. This type of group emphasizes creating a new social support network, expressing emotion, confronting existential issues, improving relationships with family and friends, enhancing communication with physicians, and learning coping skills. Previous studies have suggested that support groups may help breast cancer patients by improving their quality of life and coping responses, and decreasing psychologic symptoms and pain.

The Pew Charitable Trust recently conducted a survey of online computer use. They reported that 52 million adult Americans, 55% of Americans with Internet access, obtained health or medical information online. Many Internet users reported using this information in conversations with their physicians and when making decisions about health care options. Interestingly, approximately 5 million of these users participated in online emotional support groups (ESGs). ESGs can function as real-time chat groups or as newsgroups in which emails are delivered on set schedules. One organization facilitating ESGs for cancer patients is The Wellness Community, a national agency that provides such services free of charge. These groups may or may not be facilitated by professionals. In general, ESGs are also less expensive than traditional group therapy sessions. Very little clinical research has examined the efficacy of ESGs for patients with cancer.

The California Breast Cancer Research Program funded a clinical trial of breast cancer patients using ESGs. Sixty-seven breast cancer patients completed baseline questionnaires, 32 of whom completed the study. Demographically, 49% of the women resided in rural or small towns, 41% lived in moderate-sized towns, and 10% lived in large cities. The majority of women were diagnosed with Stage I or II breast cancer. The women were divided into four intervention groups. Each group was led by a trained Wellness Community leader in a 1.5 hour meeting held once a week for 16 weeks. At the end of the trial, 67% of patients reported feeling that they benefited from the ESG. They reported increases in their “zest for life” and spirituality, and decreases in their experience of depression. They also reported feeling less disturbed by physical pain. Surprisingly, they were more likely to suppress emotions after participating in ESGs than they had been before.

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The withdrawal rate for this study was 20%, similar to drop out levels in face-to-face group psychotherapy. The women who left the study described themselves as experiencing less pain overall than women who completed the trial. However, the entrance test scores of those women who left the study indicated they had difficulty dealing with their anxiety and were more likely to suppress their emotions than their counterparts.

While there were several weaknesses with this trial (it was not randomized, nor was there a control group to compare results against), the results are promising for breast cancer patients lacking access to social services. Additional, more complete studies are needed to confirm these findings.

References: Lieberman MA, Golant M, Giese-Davis J, et al. Electronic support groups for breast carcinoma.

Cancer. 2003;97:920-5.

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