Sharing Love and Support
Also known by these names:
Love heals. That is the simplest way to put it. Friends help us heal. Kindness heals. Kindness, they say, is love with its work boots on. The experience of being surrounded by love, family and friends who care about you, and the kindness of strangers—including doctors and other healers who care for you—is for many an awesomely powerful experience.
There is a whole literature on why social support matters. We could say social support is the neutral language with which researchers describe love, friendship and the kindness of strangers. People with stronger social support are healthier all their lives and do better when they get sick. So finding and receiving love and kindness matters. While it is easy for some, others find it difficult to find and even difficult to receive.
Love heals. That is the simplest way to put it. Friends help us heal. Kindness heals.
Some of the BCCT staff have worked on hundreds of week-long residential retreats for people with cancer. These retreats have made strikingly clear that being in community and support with fellow wounded healers, as well as going home and revving up social support systems, contributes to long-term, life-changing benefits.
Types of Social Support
Don’t Forget Our Caregivers
Caregivers for those with cancer also need social and professional support in caring for their loved ones.
See our Caring for Caregivers page for more information about caring for yourself and finding support.
Social support can be categorized into three major types:2
- Emotional: what people do that make us feel loved and cared for, that increases our sense of self-worth; this includes actions such as talking over a problem, or providing encouragement/positive feedback
- Instrumental: various types of practical help that others may provide, such as help with childcare/housekeeping, or providing transportation or money
- Informational: the help that others may offer through providing information
Building Your Social Support Network
BCCT has collected ideas from several sources for making good use of your social support resources and building your social support network.
Clinical Practice Guidelines
The SIO clinical practice guidelines give a Grade 1A rating to support groups and supportive/expressive therapy as part of a multidisciplinary approach to reduce anxiety, mood disturbance, chronic pain and improve quality of life. This is the strongest level of recommendation, meaning that in a review of quality evidence, the benefits outweigh the risks and the therapy can be applied to most patients in most circumstances without reservation.6
Treating the Cancer
Working against cancer growth or spread, improving survival, or working with other treatments or therapies to improve their anticancer action
Sharing love and support (especially emotional support) has a strong positive influence on disease outcomes:7
- Lack of social support seems to increase risks of having a major disease such as cancer, heart attack or stroke.
- Having good social support seems to improve chances of survival after heart attack, stroke and possibly even cancer.
- Social isolation is associated with all-cause mortality, with the level of greater risk varying in the US according to race and gender. With greater social isolation, both men and women of African-American descent show greater increased mortality than their peers of European-American descent. Cancer mortality was greater among women of European-American descent compared to their male counterparts, although this difference was not seen between women and men of African-American descent.
Stress, Cancer and Social Support
Stress hormones can exert tremendous influence on the tumor microenvironment (see our Managing Stress page). Mediating the stress response with love and support is an important part of an integrative cancer care plan. “The effect of social support on life expectancy appears to be as strong as the effects of obesity, cigarette smoking, hypertension, or level of physical activity.”8
We emphasize that love and support can likely benefit most people with cancer and their caregivers, even though studies have been done in only a limited number of cancers.
Many outstanding integrative oncology care clinicians, including several of BCCT’s advisors, stress the importance of social support and include it in their integrative care protocols and plans
Cancer in General
Caregivers of People with Cancer
Child and Adolescent Cancer Survivors
Managing Side Effects and Promoting Wellness
Sharing love and support (especially emotional support) has a strong positive influence on psychological and physical well-being:
Positive social support seems to enhance resilience to stress.
- Those who enjoy good social support have lower risk of depression or psychological distress.34
- Emotional support has been linked to preserving physical and cognitive functioning in seniors.35
- In the lab and in the community, positive social support seems to enhance resilience to stress. It may also protect against developing psychological problems related to trauma, as well as reduce the functional problems related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).36
Integrative Programs, Protocols and Medical Systems
|For more information about programs and protocols, see our Integrative Programs and Protocols page.|
Many outstanding integrative oncology care clinicians, including several of BCCT’s advisors, stress the importance of social support and include it in their integrative care protocols and programs:
- Keith Block’s integrative cancer treatment program teaches patients to individualize their mind and spirit care plan, including mobilizing social support.37
- Alschuler & Gazella list social support as one of the five guidelines for cancer patients to find love, laughter and joy. “Seek out social support. Don’t underestimate the dangers of isolation.”38
- The late renowned integrative oncologist Jeremy Geffen described “Seven Levels of Healing” with “Connection with Others” near the top of the list.39
- Gary Deng, MD, medical director of the Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, includes “Relationships” as one of the “6 Pillars for Good Health.”
- The innovative cardiologist Dean Ornish adapted his Lifestyle Medicine program for reversing heart disease for men with prostate cancer. A critical facet of that program is what Ornish calls “love and support.” Ornish says the heart of healing is “connection”, which includes increasing love and intimacy in our lives, group support, improving communication skills and fluent listening.40
Social support is included in these specific programs, protocols and approaches:
Non-cancer Uses of Social Support
Sharing love and support is considered an important component of care in reducing the risk of and managing many chronic diseases. A prime example is Dr. Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease.
- Alschuler & Gazella complementary approaches for all cancers41
- Block program for all cancers42
- Cohen & Jefferies Mix of Six anticancer practices43
- Geffen Seven Levels of Healing44
- MacDonald breast cancer program45
- McKinney protocols:46
- Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Program for Prostate Cancer47
Love and support most commonly come from family members, friends and other loved ones. However, expanding social support networks to include connections in groups, community and church organizations and workmates is not uncommon. Many cancer centers and communities offer support groups for people with cancer. Many online and virtual social support programs are available for people with cancer; some are listed below.
Written by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, with review by Nancy Hepp, MS; most recent update on May 1, 2019.
Know of other helpful resources and information sources about sharing love and support? If so, please use the Comments section below to describe these resources and how we can find them.
Web resources and online support services
- The Cancer Support Community
- Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Program for Prostate Cancer
- ASCO: Cancer Net: Finding Support and Information
- CancerCare: includes a wide range of cancer support services, including counseling and support groups
- Livestrong: Cancer Support
- American Cancer Society. My Lifeline Program: “Empower patients to build an online support community of family and friends to foster connection, inspiration, and healing.”
- ACOR: Association of Online Cancer Resources
- Smith Center for Healing and the Arts: Individual Integrative Patient Navigation Services
Resources for young adults with cancer
- Stupid Cancer: Specifically for Young Adults with Cancer: includes a number of resources for support groups, 1:1 peer support and community forums.
- Livestrong: We Can Help: Adolescents and Young Adults
- Smith Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC: DC Young Adult Cancer Community
- Outdoor adventure camps for young adults with cancer:
Social support resources for caregivers
- National Cancer Institute: Caring for Caregivers
- AARP: Family Caregiving/Care Guides: Helping Care for a Loved One with Cancer: I Need Help With...
- My Cancer Circle: a CancerCare webpage for caregivers of people coping with cancer.
- Senior Navigator: includes specific webpages and resources on caregiving.
- Caregiver Action Network
- Leukemia Lymphoma Society: Caregiver Support
- Living With Cancer: Circle of Support App
- American Cancer Society: If You’re About to Become a Cancer Caregiver
- Cancer Support Community: Caregivers: Remember Your Needs
- ASCO Cancer Net: Caregivers Taking Care of Themselves
- Share the Care. How to Organize a Group for Caregiving
- Halpern S. The Etiquette of an Illness. New York, New York. Bloomsbury. 2004. This book is for people who are ill and want to engage with their loved ones effectively. It is also for those who feel awkward and unsure about responding to a friend, colleague, or relative who is suffering.
- Geffen J. The Seven Levels of Healing. Presented at Cancer as a Turning Point Conference in Seattle, Washington in 2006.
Research review articles
- Kroenke CH, Kubzansky LD, Schernhammer ES, Holmes MD, Kawachi I. Social networks, social support, and survival after breast cancer diagnosis. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2006 Mar 1;24(7):1105-11.
- A number of clinical trials of social support and cancer are recruiting, in progress or recently completed. To learn more about these trials, visit clinicaltrials.gov.
More from Our Resources Database
- Commonweal: Healing Circles
- Michael Lerner: Choices In Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer
- Jeremy R. Geffen, MD, FACP: The Journey through Cancer: An Oncologist's Seven-Level Program for Healing and Transforming the Whole Person
- CancerCare: My Cancer Circle
- Cancer Support Community
- Norman Cousins: Head First: The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit
- Glenn Sabin with Dawn Lemanne, MD, MPH: N of 1
- Dr. Leslie Schover: Will2Love
- Jeremy R. Geffen, MD, FACP: The Seven Levels of Healing®: Celebrating Life and Spirit on the Journey through Cancer
- Lorenzo Cohen and Alison Jefferies: Anticancer Living: Transform Your Life and Health with the Mix of Six
- Keith I. Block, MD: Life over Cancer: The Block Center Program for Integrative Cancer Treatment
- Lise Alschuler, ND, FABNO, and Karolyn Gazella: The Definitive Guide to Cancer, 3rd Edition
- American Society of Clinical Oncology: Cancer.Net
- Commonweal: Commonweal Cancer Help Program
- The Lord Symington Foundation with Healing Circles and The New School at Commonweal: Dean Ornish, MD: Symington 2017
- The New School at Commonweal: Dwight McKee, MD: 40 Years Practicing Integrative Cancer Medicine, Part 1
- The New School at Commonweal: Dwight McKee, MD: 40 Years Practicing Integrative Cancer Medicine, Part 2
- Wayne Jonas, MD: Your Healing Journey: A Patient’s Guide to Integrative Breast Cancer Care
- Lise Alschuler and Karolyn A. Gazella: iThrive Plan
- Block KI, Block PB, Gyllenhaal C: Integrative Treatment for Colorectal Cancer
- American Institute for Cancer Research: American Institute for Cancer Research Blog
- Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine: CanHEAL