New Hollings online support group aims to connect, help breast cancer patients

October 01, 2021
Breast Cancer Video Conference Art
The MUSC Hollings Cancer Center breast cancer support group meetings provide a resource for patients at any stage of treatment to connect with others. Adobe Stock art

Providers and specialists at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center know there is much more to patient care than treating the cancer itself. They see the mental and emotional toll a cancer diagnosis can take, which is why Hollings is introducing a new online support group for breast cancer patients and survivors.

“It is certainly an unmet need to connect these patients with others who can relate to what they’re going through,” said Jennifer Wood, R.N., a nurse navigator at Hollings and one of the organizers of the group. “With the pandemic ongoing, feelings of isolation have only grown in some cancer patients who can’t see loved ones for fear of contracting COVID-19 with a weakened immune system.”

The online support group officially launched in September and will take place the third Wednesday of every month. The virtual meetings provide a resource for patients at any stage of treatment to connect with others, no matter where they live.

Dr. Stacey Maurer 
Dr. Stacey Maurer, assistant professor in the MUSC College of Medicine, will help to lead the breast cancer support group meetings. Photo by Marquel Coaxum

Stacey Maurer, Ph.D., assistant professor in the MUSC College of Medicine, will help to lead the meetings. “As the only NCI-designated cancer center in South Carolina, we know that some patients have to drive several hours for care because we do serve the entire state,” she said. “Being able to reach breast cancer patients with this online support group is a huge benefit.”

The group will discuss topics like how to communicate your diagnosis with family and friends, anxiety surrounding a cancer recurrence and coping with a cancer diagnosis. Maurer said that organizers want to keep topics broad to encourage more participation.

“We don’t want this support group to feel like a class. We want the patient-to-patient connection and support to take center stage. That is what this is all about – providing resources and connecting these patients with one another.”  

Maurer said patients reporting feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said between 25% and 50% of breast cancer patients report having significant depression, anxiety and difficulty coping with the diagnosis.  

Isolation and depression are growing problems, as there are more breast cancer survivors today than ever before, thanks to advancements in treatment. It’s one reason why Hollings’ breast cancer specialist Andrea Abbott, M.D., is also involved in the project. Abbott said there are now more than three million breast cancer survivors in the U.S., and for many, the most challenging time comes after treatment has ended.

“We’ve poured so much effort into prevention and detection to catch these cancers early, but we also have to think about how we can support patients after the treatment is over,” Abbott said. “It is a scary time to transition from seeing doctors all of the time to then trying to live a normal life as a cancer survivor. Some women feel abandoned during that transition, and we don’t want that.”

"We don’t want this support group to feel like a class. We want the patient-to-patient connection and support to take center stage. That is what this is all about – providing resources and connecting these patients with one another.”
— Dr. Stacey Maurer

The breast cancer support group not only provides a connection to other patients but also gives patients an opportunity to brainstorm with health professionals about ways to manage the many challenges a cancer diagnosis can bring to help future patients.

One of the goals of the online support group is to show its feasibility – ideally to replicate it for other cancer types as well. In 2020, around 32,000 South Carolinians were diagnosed with cancer, with 33% reporting high levels of depression or anxiety. Seventy-five percent of those patients felt they had unmet needs – needs that Abbott hopes online support groups at Hollings can meet.

“These are real issues that many cancer survivors face on a daily basis,” Abbott said. “If we can help current patients and survivors, while at the same time gaining valuable insight of how we as health professionals can better support cancer patients, then this support group is truly a win for everyone.”

To register for online support groups visit musc.co/patientsupportgroups.

About the Author

Josh Birch
MUSC Hollings Cancer Center

Keywords: Cancer