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Cancer support groups move online during COVID-19 pandemic

Sharp Grossmont adjusts to help high-risk patients
Posted at 10:02 AM, Nov 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-19 13:22:09-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - For breast cancer survivor Cindy Swan, group therapy sessions have been an integral part of her fight.

"At first, I thought I don't need that. That's not for me. I'm a 27-year veteran Navy wife. I can handle anything," she says.

"But people (in the group) really know what you're going through. They understand it. And seeking help does not make you weak."

Cindy has been a regular at Sharp Grossmont group sessions since 2018.

But the coronavirus pandemic forced the hospital to cancel all in-person sessions this past March.

"It was a little bit scary," Swan says. "Because now you have no lifeline that you have been holding on to, to learn your way."

Social workers at Sharp scrambled during the first few weeks, trying to find a way to make sure cancer survivors, who are a high-risk group for COVID-19, could still meet and get the emotional support they need.

They started to hold virtual group meetings, working through the kinks and quirks of sessions online.

"Coming to the group was important; maintaining those connections was important; normalizing what was going on for everybody was really, really important," says Sharp Grossmont Oncology Social Worker Linda Hutkin-Slade.

"But it feels different," she says. "You can't read the room like you do when you're in person. And you don't get the same (non-verbal) cues that you're getting when you're only seeing somebody from the shoulders up."

The online sessions were a near-instant success. Within a few weeks, the groups, which are open to anyone, had grown. Cancer patients from all over the world started to join. And people who used to miss meetings because they were feeling ill or couldn't make the drive became more regular participants.

"It's never going to be the same as the in-person," says Hutkin-Slade. "But it is at least something. And it's a connection. And it helps normalize what people are going through."

For Swan, it's been just as helpful as the in-person sessions.

"We still get to talk to each other," she says. "We get to have the guidance of our social workers, and all of that still helps you feel connected, even when you're not physically connected to other people."

When the pandemic ends, Sharp says they'll make group therapy a hybrid of in-person and online, to let people access therapy in whatever way is most comfortable for them.

That way, whether it's virtual or face to face, cancer survivors know they're not alone.

For more information about Sharp Grossmont's online group therapy, click here.