By: Victoria Rego
The phrase “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” has new meaning to me as a breast cancer survivor. I now understand it’s impossible to know what someone is feeling unless you’ve actually been there yourself. When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t think that talking to others would help, but I was wrong. The benefits of having a support system is immeasurable, especially when a cancer diagnosis is involved. Though family and friends are wonderful, they often unknowingly say they wrong thing in an attempt to be supportive. They mean well, I assure you; they just can’t really understand the impact a breast cancer diagnosis has unless they have heard those words themselves. While doctors and other medical staff provide an immense amount of information about what to expect and when, they can only tell you about the experiences of other patients. That being said, having a peer, someone who has been where you are now, can help in many ways to guide, support, and maybe let you know those side effects you think you’re having aren’t your imagination.
This is why having peer support is so important: we’ve been there, and we can tell you what worked for us and what didn’t. We understand that having your hair fall out from chemo and hearing “it’s just hair” is not okay. It’s not just hair, it’s a reality-check that this “cancer thing” is happening. We get that fatigue goes beyond “being tired” and straight to “my body is too heavy to move.” We also get that other factors can influence how diagnosis and treatment affect our lives. Having a peer to speak to helps, and research agrees: there is a benefit to peer-support programs, such as SHARE’s helpline. One benefit is that survivors are able to offer suggestions for managing the side-effects that women with breast cancer experience and share their personal experiences with cancer and treatment (Sutton & Erlen, 2006). Telling your story helps others know they aren’t alone. Studies show that patients who reach out to peer-support programs benefit because they are being understood by others who are not threatening, judgemental, emotionally-involved, or medical staff (Ono et al 2017).
The article Subjective evaluation of a peer support program by women with breast cancer: A qualitative study (Ono et al 2017) describes several benefits of peer support, including support that is tailored to patient needs by trained peer supporters, having peer-specific emotional support, and receiving specific information about trials and new treatment options. Patients with early-stage breast cancer also referenced having the chance to reflect on feelings based on feedback and having help making preparations to move forward once treatment is completed as benefits. While the advantages are great, there are some disadvantages to peer support; it requires strict management of personal information, such as keeping peer-contact information private, and matching limitations. However, peer support has been shown to improve overall outcomes by providing information that doctors cannot: first-hand experience as a patient.
Kroenke, C. H., Kubzansky, L. D., Schernhammer, E. S., Holmes, M. D., & Kawachi, I. (2006). Social networks, social support, and survival after breast cancer diagnosis. J Clin Oncol, 24(7), 1105-1111.
Ono, M. , Tsuyumu, Y. , Ota, H. and Okamoto, R. (2017), Subjective evaluation of a peer support program by women with breast cancer: A qualitative study. Jpn J Nurs Sci, 14: 38-48. doi:10.1111/jjns.12134
Sutton, L. B., & Erlen, J. A. (2006). Effects of mutual dyad support on quality of life in women with breast cancer. Cancer Nursing, 29(6), 488-498.