The Fallible Caregiver Series: How to Start a Cancer Support Group

When my wife, Rebekah, was re-diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer 8 years ago, we were shattered and lost. She was only 26 years old. Few people understand a cancer diagnosis, and even fewer understand what a stage 4 diagnosis means. We felt very alone.

Seeking support from our church

We turned to our church to see if they had any cancer ministry or a counselor who could help us. After all, this was a mega-church with about 15,000 members. It shocked us to learn that the church had no resources for those dealing with cancer.

Filling a gap in support at church

So we started our own support group. After pitching the idea to a pastor, he loved the idea and let us use one of the church's meeting rooms. The church made known the new group, and we averaged 10-15 people each week. A few other women stepped up and helped us co-lead the group every other Saturday morning. The group lasted several years and proved to be a significant blessing for Rebekah and me.

3 steps to establishing a cancer support group

We moved from California to Oregon 2 years ago. Finding new friends, especially those our age dealing with cancer, has been a struggle. So we are close to starting a new cancer support group.

But this time, we don't have a mega-church to help fill seats. We're on our own. But that's fine because I have a plan I'm excited to start on.

Step 1: Secure a meeting location

Since we attend a new church now, I plan to ask the pastor if we can use a meeting room twice a month. Our new church has about 500 people, so I'm not expecting to get many people in our group from there. That's okay. Other ideas of places to meet are:

  • Your local hospital or other medical facilities
  • Your local library
  • Coffee shops, fitness studios, or community centers
  • Senior living facilities
  • College campuses
  • Online groups via Zoom, Facebook, etc.

We only recommend you meet at someone's house if you already know each person attending. Public locations are safer and make newcomers feel more comfortable.

When starting a group, we suggest you meet at least 2 times each month. Weekly meetings can prove too much for many patients. In our experience, Wednesday or Thursday evenings bring a larger turnout or Saturday mornings around 10:00 AM.

Step 2: Recruit community members

I plan to make up some flyers and post them on bulletin boards all over town. If you're not selling a product or charging a fee, most coffee shops will let you put a flyer on their public boards. I will also visit nearby hospitals, nutrition shops, fitness centers, yoga studios, other churches, etc. to spread the word.

I will also run inexpensive ads on Facebook targeting our little city of Ashland and our larger neighbor, Medford. We'll also do some homespun organic posts on our own Facebook pages. Then we'll just pray and trust God to bring who he wants.

Step 3: Host the first meeting

Ideally, we'll arrange chairs in a circle (or square) around a large table. I plan to meet Wednesday evenings for an hour starting at 6:30 PM but also allow time afterwards for participants to mingle.

How do support groups operate?

You may wonder who should lead the group and what to talk about. This may be the biggest concern (or fear) of those who want to attend or volunteer with a local support group.

Remember that I mentioned how we co-led our previous support group with a couple of other ladies? Eventually, those ladies sort of ruined the group by micro-managing duties for everyone and using their time to lead to hog the mic and teach a lesson the entire time.

Keep it simple

I recommend the K.I.S.S. principle: "Keep It Simple, Stupid." Keep your meetings super simple. The actual power of support groups is getting people to talk and allowing people to cultivate friendships and connections that transcend the group itself. That's it.

Your job is not as a prominent leader or teacher but as a group facilitator. You gently guide the group and keep things on track. Most people understand how these types of groups work, and they usually flow quite naturally. I would instate a talking time limit, though, say 2 minutes. This will protect the group from microphone hogs.

Choose a topic to discuss

Finally, choose one topic to discuss as it relates to cancer. It's that simple. Here are some examples:

  • Fear and anxiety
  • Anger
  • Hope
  • Faith
  • Finances
  • Treatments
  • Family, kids, and relationships
  • Depression

Ask relevant questions to start conversations

Once the topic is chosen, think of 4-5 questions about that topic and cancer. For example:

  • "What part of cancer scares you the most?"
  • "What do you do to find strength against that fear?"
  • "How are you doing today with that fear?"

Go for it

That's my plan. It's pretty simple. In the future, I'll write another article to give an update on how our efforts and the new group are progressing. But if you're feeling the itch to start a support group in your area, my advice is just to do it. Go for it. It's simple to do and pays off in significant ways for you and those who attend.

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