January 14, 2021
Virtual support groups bring comfort, connections for cancer patients and caregivers
BY Ronda Wendler
Jenn Myers was scrolling through Facebook while waiting for her chemotherapy session to start last April when a post caught her attention.
“MD Anderson announced its cancer support groups were going virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Jenn, a cervical cancer survivor. “I signed up on the spot.”
Jenn had wanted to participate since she first became an MD Anderson patient two years ago, but the timing was never right. The meetings were only held in-person, and Jenn lived in Pennsylvania.
“Whenever the support groups met, I was invariably home,” she explains, “or at MD Anderson, but tied up in medical appointments.”
When the online support groups launched on April 13, she could finally attend – from anywhere.
“I’ve participated from Pennsylvania, from my hotel room in Houston, and even during my chemotherapy sessions,” she says. “Virtual meetings really opened up a new world for me.”
Cancer support groups provide a vital outlet during the COVID-19 pandemic
Teresa Van Oort, clinical program manager for Social Work, says the online support groups have been a vital outlet for many patients and caregivers.
“Dealing with cancer can be overwhelming, but the pandemic makes it even harder,” she says. “Cancer patients must isolate to protect themselves at a time when they need emotional support the most.”
Van Oort teamed up with her Social Work colleagues to quickly launch virtual support group meetings to ensure cancer patients could still meet and get the support they need.
The online sessions were a near-instant success. Within a few weeks, the groups, which are open to all, had grown. MD Anderson patients from across the country started to join. And people who used to miss meetings because they were feeling ill or couldn’t make the drive became regular participants. Additional groups were added to meet the demand.
Today, MD Anderson offers 28 different support groups – one of the broadest selections in the country. People can choose from larger groups open to all cancer patients and caregivers, or smaller groups based on specific cancer types or populations, including Spanish-speaking, teens and young adults, parents with cancer, and LGBTQ.
Virtual connections re-energize cancer caregivers
Olivia Corona works as a speech language pathologist at an elementary school in Austin, Texas. She lives with her mom, Minerva, who’s facing stage IV lung cancer.
Every Thursday at 6 p.m., Olivia logs into MD Anderson’s support group for caregivers.
“The group is like an oasis where I go to get re-energized,” she says. “I’ve learned some great stress-reduction techniques and I’ve made some great friends.”
She calls the virtual format a “much-needed blessing.”
“It’s so easy and accessible,” she says. “I hop on the computer, log into Zoom, and participate while dinner’s in the oven.”
Group members recently cheered and applauded when Olivia shared that scans showed her mom’s cancer was shrinking.
“We’re like a family,” she says, “a virtual family.”
Friendships emerge from cancer support groups
Jenn knows that feeling. She’s forged close friendships with three women in her virtual support group.
“We just clicked,” she says.
The “fearless foursome,” as their group leader calls them, message each other daily.
“We talk about movies, current events, food – and so much more than cancer,” Jenn says.
On Mondays, they lunch together on Zoom and toast each other’s health.
“We’re on the same path,” Jenn says. “We get each other.”
Online cancer support groups provide invaluable support
Van Oort says virtual meetings feel a bit different than traditional ones. Social work counselors can’t read the room like they did during in-person groups. And they may miss some nonverbal cues because they can only see participants form the shoulders up.
“But the online groups provide an invaluable connection,” Van Oort says. “And they help normalize what people are going through.”
For Jenn, the virtual group has been just as helpful as an in-person meeting.
“I don’t feel like I’m missing anything,” she says. “We still get to talk to each other and get guidance from our social work counselors. All of that helps us feel connected, even when we’re not physically together.”
When the pandemic ends, Van Oort says MD Anderson will make support groups a hybrid of in-person and online meetings, to let people access therapy in whatever way is most comfortable and convenient for them.
“That way,” says Van Oort, “whether meetings are virtual or face to face, cancer survivors can still know they’re not alone.
More cancer patient programs that have gone virtual during COVID-19
Support groups aren’t the only patient programs to go virtual during the pandemic. Here are a few more support programs that have gone virtual to keep cancer patients and caregivers engaged, informed and healthy – no matter where they are.
Lunch & Learns
At these lunchtime information sessions, experts provide patients, caregivers and survivors with the latest cancer news and information. Recent presentations include “Getting the most out of your virtual appointment,” “Battling social isolation during COVID-19,” and “Finding reliable health information.”
Sessions were previously held on MD Anderson’s Texas Medical Center Campus the second and third Tuesdays of the month from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Now, they’re offered at the same time – but on Zoom.
“Patients and family members used to schedule their appointments and Houston visits around these Lunch & Learns,” says Diana Leipold, manager of Volunteer and Patient Programs. “Now attendees can log in from home or other locations.”
Breast cancer survivor Estelle Racusin attended Lunch & Learns in person before the pandemic arrived.
“I had to be at MD Anderson on Tuesdays to attend,” she says. “But with the virtual sessions, I can participate from anywhere.”
She recently logged in to a session from her car while her husband was driving.
“I love the convenience and flexibility of the virtual sessions,” she says.
Programs for adolescents and young adults
In addition to making its support group virtual, MD Anderson’s Adolescent and Young Adult Program (AYA) has taken its social activities virtual, including educational webinars, art and cooking classes, game and movie nights, and beauty and skin-care classes
“Everything we used to do in-person is now being done virtually,” says program manager Wendy Griffith. “The virtual format has actually improved access and made it possible for more patients to connect.”
Colorectal cancer survivor Allison Rosen agrees. “It’s great seeing some new faces who maybe weren’t willing or able to come in person,” she says.
Active Living After Cancer
Now offered on Zoom, Active Living After Cancer is a 12-week program that motivates cancer survivors to exercise and make healthy lifestyle changes.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the program seamlessly transitioned to a virtual format.
“We’d been thinking about developing virtual options for a while to help us reach survivors who live in more rural areas,” says Karen Basen-Engquist, Ph.D., the program’s director. “The need for social distancing gave us a chance to try it out.”
Cancer survivors have embraced the change, Basen-Engquist says, and are continuing their uninterrupted participation.
Tobacco Treatment Program
MD Anderson’s Tobacco Treatment Program is experiencing a steady increase in enrollment since going 100% remote in March. 1,400 virtual Tobacco Treatment Program participants got help with quitting smoking from March through August alone.
“We believe more people are motivated to quit smoking during the pandemic, because smokers have been affected by COVID-19 more than non-smokers, and in worse ways,” says Maher Karam-Hage, M.D., the program’s medical director. “The lungs are a favorite target of COVID-19.”
When the pandemic resulted in the discontinuation of in-person sessions, the program quickly transitioned to a virtual format.
“Nicotine addiction recovery is a difficult and elaborate, step-by-step process, and our participants couldn’t afford to miss a beat,” Karam-Hage says. “We transitioned quickly, and everyone stayed on schedule.”
TopicsSupport Psychosocial COVID-19
Virtual meetings really opened up a new world for me.