The Importance of Social Support When Diagnosed with Cancer

Dr. Suzanne Engelman

California Licensed Psychologist PSY7977
Board Certified in Biofeedback
Certified Thanatologist
Certified Animal Assisted Therapist

30100 Crown Valley Parkway
Suite # 17C
Laguna Niguel, CA 92677

Office Phone:  (949) 460-4908 
FAX:  (949) 248-0421
Confidential email:

Suzanne R. Engelman, PHD, BCB, FT


  • Over 4 million people are living with cancer today
  • Cancer is a stressful event that influences interpersonal relationships!!!!

How does a Cancer Diagnosis Affect Your Relationships?

  • Your friends may withdraw or react inappropriately
  • May affect relationships indirectly by restricting your social activities—which will affect your  access to interpersonal resources---just when they are most needed.

 A Cancer Diagnosis may…

  • Challenge your basic assumptions about yourself and the world
  • Lead to a sense of personal inadequacy, diminished feelings of control, increased feelings of vulnerability, sense of confusion

Types of Social Support

  • Emotional
  • Informational
  • Instrumental

Unhelpful Emotional Support

  • People without cancer may see their role as trying to cheer up the person with cancer; However, the majority of cancer patients may feel disturbed by “unrelenting optimism”!
  • Lack of emotional support from family and friends is  especially harmful:
    • “It will all work out”, or empathy (“ I know how you feel”) can only go so far
    • may be viewed as minimization of the problem; however,
  • People without cancer may think it is harmful for people with cancer to discuss their illness--that major concerns for people with cancer are cosmetic. However, people with cancer may feel major concerns center on recurrence and death
Myths that people without cancer may hold
  • 87% of people with cancer said they coped with their illness by keeping their feelings to themselves because of concern about how others might react to their expression of feelings.

Informational Support

  • Provides information used to guide or advise
  • May enhance perceptions of control by providing patients with ways of manage their illness and cope with symptoms
  • Learning how to manage illness may enhance your optimism about the future and reduce feelings of future vulnerability
  • Ameliorate sense of confusion and help to understand cause, course, treatment  of illness
  • May help you to be a positive role model to another person with cancer
  • By promoting a your  individual resources, spouses, family members are also  relieved of cancer related distress’
  • Is a means of empowerment for you
Instrumental Support
  • Provision of material goods
  • Transportation
  • Money
  • Assistance with household chores
  • Tangible support including practical assistance and medical care
  • Can offset loss of control people feel during cancer treatment  by providing tangible resources they can use to exert control over their experience

Support Groups

  • Takes place in atmosphere of caring and acceptance
  • Provides a peer setting-meeting with others who have cancer provides unique needs
  • Can be structured or unstructured conversations
  • Educational groups primarily foster informational support 
Positive effects of group support
  • 6 months after intervention had ended, patients  had reduced psychological distress, altered immune function (increased natural killer cell activity); decreased T cells, increased lymphocytes ( 1993; Fawzy) compared with patients  in control group
  • The intervention decreased recurrence and increased survival 6 yrs later ( and Yalom, Spiegel, bloom 1989)

Group support and health outcomes

  • Structured group interventions for people with cancer improves psychological well being, reduces anxiety and depression and improves quality of life, coping and mental adjustment
Closing Thoughts
  • Helping people with cancer face their fears directly creates an intimacy that builds…”social glue!” (Spiegel)
  • Allowing people with cancer to express negative emotions allows them to feel more joy!
  • Its not How long you live, but how WELL you live!

Suzanne R. Engelman, PH.D., BCB, FT ( is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Laguna Niguel.