Breast cancer patients often face loneliness and fear as they become overwhelmed with balancing treatment, family and work.

They may not be able to participate in social gatherings, making them feel more isolated. 

Trying to put up a brave front for family and friends makes it difficult to share feelings – so many patients find strength in support groups, Carol Harding said.

“Studies have shown support groups improve the quality of life for people who are dealing with cancer,” Harding said.

A breast cancer survivor, Harding has led a women’s cancer support group for about 20 years.

The group meets from 6 to 8 p.m. on the first and third Tuesday of each month at Conemaugh Richland, 1450 Scalp Ave.

Information is shared, but meetings are primarily to help survivors understand that there is hope.

“We hear it all the time: ‘I thought I was the only person in the world with my issues,’ ” Harding said. “But many of the people in the group have had the same issues. They are not alone.”

Discussions can be harsh, Harding said.

Women facing the possibility of death imagine their own funerals and the prospect of not seeing their children graduate from school or get married.

“Within the group they are not judged,” Harding said. 

“They are often encouraged to be very open and very courageous in what they say.” 

‘We deal with it’

A retired nurse, Harding was program manager at Conemaugh Diabetes Institute, and earlier directed the diabetes program at the former UPMC Lee Regional.

She began volunteering with the American Cancer Society in 1987, even though no family member had been diagnosed with the disease at the time.

That soon changed. She lost her husband, Ed, to cancer in 1990.

Her mother, Ruth Constable, of Johnstown, was diagnosed with breast cancer around 1989, but lived to be 96. Constable died in December 2015.

Support groups can be therapeutic for newly diagnosed patients still going through treatment and longtime survivors such as Harding, who was diagnosed in 1991.

“People still undergoing treatment can see the other side: Survivors leading happy lives,” she said.

Long-term survivors get fulfillment by helping the new members, who often come with questions, Harding said.

“They ask: What do I do now? What if it comes back?” she said. “We deal with it.” 

‘Count on each other’

Sometimes, the support group has to deal with loss. Not all of its members become longtime survivors.

“Death is part of life, and we all realize that,” Harding said. 

“We can be supportive of the individuals as they are going through the dying process.”

When a member dies, the others come together as a group.

“We count on each other for that strength,” Harding said. 

“We go to funeral homes together. We celebrate the life of the individual who has passed.”

The National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health cites studies that show support groups can provide a number of benefits:

• Help survivors feel better, more hopeful and not so alone.

• Give them a chance to talk about feelings and work through them.

• Help them deal with practical problems, such as situations at work or school.

• Help them cope with side effects of treatment.

Seeking ‘interaction’

Today, a growing number of breast cancer patients find support online and through social media. 

The Susan G. Komen organization’s website, www.komen.org, lists 17 different online and telephone support group resources, some with several groups catering to specific subsets of patients, survivors, caregivers and partners.

Harding has mixed feelings about the online support options.

“I do believe there is a place for that,” Harding said. “But in my estimation, the actual interaction is important.”

She recognizes, however, that group support is not for everyone.

Both the Komen organization and NCI websites include similar cautions.

“Those focused on emotional support are useful for people who are comfortable expressing their feelings and fears about breast cancer in a group setting,” the Komen site says. “People reach this stage at different times in their recovery, or not at all.”

The National Cancer Institute suggests patients ask themselves these questions before joining any group:

• Am I comfortable talking about personal issues?

• Do I have something to offer to the group?

• What do I hope to gain by joining a group? 

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.

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