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December 21, 2010 > Hope and Support

Hope and Support

New Support Group Focuses on Individuals Recently Diagnosed with Cancer

A diagnosis of cancer can turn a person's world upside down, leaving in its wake unanswerable questions and fear-of treatment, of side effects, but mostly of the unknown.

And sometimes, even with the best doctors, diagnostic tools and treatment options available, it isn't enough, according to Vandana Sharma, M.D., Ph.D., an oncologist on the Washington Hospital medical staff and medical director of the hospital's Cancer Genetics Program. To address the psychological and emotional aspects of a new cancer diagnosis, Washington Hospital has started a support group specifically designed to address the challenges of being newly diagnosed with or beginning treatment for cancer.

Support for unique challenges

"The desire to create this new group stemmed from the fact that individuals recently diagnosed and in active treatment often had different needs and really wanted to have a peer group going through a similar experience," Dr. Sharma says. "The group came out of our patients' desire for support more focused and dedicated to individuals who have been recently diagnosed, because patients being treated in the first two to three years can have a very different experience than those individuals four years and on in their treatment."

Often, she says, questions and concerns for the newly diagnosed can differ greatly for cancer survivors several years out from initial treatment than those who have just been diagnosed. Also, available treatments have changed considerably in the past decade, with newly diagnosed individuals facing side effects that were unknown 10 years ago.

"People encounter different issues at different stages of the disease, and sometimes everyone's needs can't be best met by one group," she points out.

Ultimately, Dr. Sharma says, individuals at the beginning of their treatment need to have an environment where they feel comfortable asking questions and sharing their experiences.

"Right after their diagnosis, people are asking themselves intensely personal questions like: Why did I develop this disease?; How can I explain this to my young children? and How can I work the treatment around important family events during the holidays?" Dr. Sharma explains. "I recognize that my perspective as an oncologist is perhaps different than someone who is going through the experience and the goal of this group is to help newly diagnosed patients fill in the gaps.

"When a patient finishes chemotherapy or surgery, they're faced with a situation where they're not seeing their oncologist as often, maybe every three months instead of every three weeks. Now there's a little bit of a void, but they still have questions and they may need a different level of support."

Dr. Sharma says the new group is part of the Community Cancer Program's objective to offer an even broader range of services to the community, including programs at the Washington Women's Center and the Cancer Genetics Program.

"We felt we had done a really good job in terms of diagnosis and treatment, but what we really wanted to focus on was making sure that what's important to the patient's emotional wellbeing is also being addressed," Dr. Sharma says. "We want to offer outstanding medical care, as well as attending to the educational, psychosocial and interpersonal needs of each patient."

Navigating challenges after a cancer diagnosis

The cancer support group for newly diagnosed individuals will be facilitated by Laura Scielzo, LCSW, a medical social worker at Washington Hospital who is part of the hospital's interdisciplinary oncology team.

"Support groups can be instrumental in helping combat the feelings of isolation that sometimes can accompany a cancer diagnosis," Scielzo says. "This will be a safe environment where individuals can come together to give and receive support-whether that be sharing tips on managing treatment side effects or discussion on the effects cancer has had on employment and relationships. In the end, my goal for the group is to offer a greater sense of connection so that no one ever feels alone in their diagnosis."

The group, which will be held bi-monthly, is going to be open to anyone with a cancer diagnoses during any stage of disease.

"Although people may have a different type of cancer, the experiences, concerns and fears are often very similar," Scielzo says. "The group will be primarily peer support based, but there will be opportunity for education-based key note speakers who can present on topics of particular interest or need."

Scielzo also stresses that the group will be open-ended, and anyone is welcome to attend at any time.

"Whenever you could use a little more support, we will be here for you," Scielzo says. "Cancer can be considered a family disease in that it doesn't just affect the individual diagnosed, but the entire family unit," Scielzo adds. "Caregivers and loved ones of cancer survivors have their own unique needs and concerns. Washington Hospital has a separate monthly support group for this population and is happily accepting new members."

Cancer support, treatment and education

The Newly Diagnosed Cancer Support Group will meet the first and third Tuesday of each month from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in the Washington Women's Center Conference Room, located at 2500 Mowry Avenue in the Washington West building. The first meeting will be on Tuesday, Jan. 4. For more information about, visit
or call (510) 608-1356.

For long-term cancer survivors and caregivers, the drop-in Long Term Cancer Survivor and Caregiver Support Group still meets every Wednesday from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at 2000 Mowry Avenue in the Newark and Union City Rooms.

To learn more about cancer care at Washington Hospital, visit

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