WASHINGTONIn recent years online chat rooms and list servers devoted
to a vast array of special interests have become a staple of American life.
Now a pilot project has shown that an internet support group significantly
benefits women coping with breast cancer, said Mitch Golant, PhD, vice
president of research and development for The Wellness Community (TWC)
National, Santa Monica, California.
At its 21 brick-and-mortar locations, TWC provides a range of educational
and psychological services to cancer patients, including support groups
facilitated by mental health professionals knowledgeable about cancer.
"We have preliminary evidence," he said, "that women who
participate in small, professionally facilitated, online breast cancer
support groups can obtain benefits on a number of psychological and
quality-of-life variables thereby allowing for the possibility of helping
those who do not or cannot come to a central location either because they
are too ill or live too far away."
The implications of the study are "far reaching," Dr. Golant
said at the American Psychological Association Conference on Enhancing
Outcomes in Women’s Health. A randomized study is now underway to compare
the benefits of face-to-face support groups with those of online support
groups, he said.
The Virtual Wellness Community
Online support groups cost only a fifth as much as face-to-face sessions.
TWC has initiated The Virtual Wellness Community (see box) and has produced
experimental manuals on running online groups that may help in creating
similar groups for people with other diseases.
In the pilot project, eight breast cancer patients and a professional
facilitator met online in four different groups for 1½ hours each week for
16 weeks (a total of 32 patients).
Discussion ranged across medical, personal, and emotional topics chosen
by the participants. In addition, the group members had 24-hour-a-day access
to a private electronic bulletin board where they could continue their
exchanges when the group was not in session and where they could read
transcripts of any meetings they had missed.
The women experienced a significant drop in depression, an improved
ability to handle their pain, and increased "zest for life" and
enhanced spirituality on a measure of "post-traumatic growth," Dr.
Golant said. In follow-up interviews, three quarters of participants said
they believed the group had helped them.