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 on average 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
BCCT founder Michael Lerner delineates what constitutes a healing circle.
BCCT Senior Researcher Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, introduces the healing power of sharing love and support.
Author, clinical professor and BCCT advisor Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, shares the healing power of generous listening.
BCCT advisor, physician, and researcher Dean Ornish, MD, explains how intimacy heals.
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.
Also see a list of online support communities and related resources on our Healing Circles: Share Your Experience page.
Clinical Practice Guidelines
The Society for Integrative Oncology 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
- 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
Managing Side Effects and Promoting Wellness
Sharing Love Widely
39-year-old Manuel Garcia spent weeks in the hospital for cancer treatment. He felt all alone in his baldness and cancer, until, as he finally returned home he was surprised by an incredible act of love and support. A New York Times article reports his homecoming, and a song commemorates his story (Manuel Garcia © David Roth ~ www.davidrothmusic.com ~ used by permission, performed by Laura Pole).
Sharing love and support (especially emotional support) has a strong positive influence on psychological and physical well-being:
Better quality of life:
Child and Adolescent Cancer Survivors
Sharing love and support (especially emotional support) has a strong positive influence on disease incidence:
- Decreased risks of a major disease such as cancer, heart attack or stroke with greater social support.43
- Decreased rates of recurrence of breast cancer with psychosocial interventions, including those using social support44
- Higher incidence of colorectal cancer among men in Japan with low social support45
Optimizing Your Terrain
- Improved neuroendocrine (both neural and endocrine in structure or function) and immune function with psychosocial interventions, including those using social support, with breast cancer survivors46
- Lower vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) levels—released by tumors to create a blood supply and help tumor growth—among patients with ovarian cancer with higher levels of social well-being before surgery47
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.48
- 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.”49
- The late renowned integrative oncologist Jeremy Geffen described “Seven Levels of Healing” with “Connection with Others” near the top of the list.50
- 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.51
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 cancers52
- Block program for all cancers53
- Cohen & Jefferies Mix of Six anticancer practices54
- Geffen Seven Levels of Healing55
- MacDonald breast cancer program56
- McKinney protocols:57
- Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Program for Prostate Cancer58
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 December 18, 2020.
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.