Cancer survivors offer not only a shared camaraderie of having lived through the unique kind of fear that comes upon hearing one's doctor confirm a cancer diagnosis, but they also represent a view from the other side of the battle fought.
"The benefits of mutual aid go back to the cavemen, who figured out that in banding together, their chances of surviving were better when faced with a threat," says Greta Greer, director of survivorship for the American Cancer Society (ACS). "So this is just banding together against a particularly threatening health problem."
Because of the many benefits, bringing newly diagnosed cancer patients together with survivors has become a top priority for many cancer organizations. And with the global reach of the Internet, hooking up with those willing to help has never been easier.
One of the most prominent groups to do so, the ACS's Cancer Survivors Network (CSN), was created by cancer survivors.
Through the network's Web site, visitors can read transcripts and listen to pre-recorded discussions among cancer survivors and their family members. Those registered on the site can search other users' home pages or create their own Web page, take part in live discussions, e-mail survivors and family members, search for those who've had similar cancer experiences, or even set up their own online support group.
For those who don't want to go online, the program also offers telephone support, through which users can access all of the more than 100 hours of pre-recorded discussions and stories offered by the CSN. The 24-hour, toll-free number for the network is 1-877-333-4673.
Greer says the survivor network concept derives from our most primal instincts of finding strength in numbers. The group is currently about 15,000 members strong, with the benefits extending to those seeking support as well as those offering it.
"There seems to be a real healing power in telling your story, and that's recognized in many cultures," says Greer. "It seems to be particularly helpful in terms of dealing with cancer -- for the storyteller and listener alike."
Also on the Internet is the Cancer Hope Network, which provides free and confidential support to cancer patients and their families by matching them up one-on-one with trained volunteers who have themselves undergone and recovered from a similar cancer experience.
Wanda Diak, managing director of the network and a cancer survivor, says she's struck by the gratitude shown by those who use the service.
"You can literally hear the relief in newly diagnosed callers' voices when you tell them you can match them with someone who has not only been through the same diagnosis, but is now post-treatment and doing well," says Diak.
Diak says she learned through her own experience with ovarian cancer (she's now cancer-free) how important it can be to talk to a layperson on the receiving end of the medical jargon regarding a disease many can't begin to understand.
"As wonderful as my doctors were, it was such a relief to talk with someone who'd received the same treatment I would receive and to see that she had survived," says Diak.
While the Cancer Hope Network and Cancer Survivors Network are for people with all types of cancer, various other organizations offer support for more specific types of cancer.
For breast cancer patients, for instance, there is Reach to Recovery. Man to Man is a support service specifically for men who've been diagnosed with prostate cancer. The groups Look Good, Feel Better and Look Good, Feel Better. . . For Teens, offer appearance techniques for those undergoing the various effects of cancer treatments.
In addition to the many organizations found on the Web, support groups and one-on-one matchings of patients and cancer survivors are often arranged right within cancer centers and among doctors' own patients. Regardless of the source, however, most support groups operate with one ultimate goal: giving patients courage and comfort.
"There's no way around it -- everyone who hears of a cancer diagnosis is devastated," says Diak. "And as much medical progress has been made surrounding cancer and its treatment, there is still the terrible fear of hearing that word from your doctor.
"And to those patients, we're offering a gift of hope and encouragement in the form of a survivor who can say, 'I was there, too.' "
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