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.