A cancer diagnosis brings with it many emotional and practical challenges, while stressful and traumatic events often accompany the treatment process. Requiring more than just medication and medical attention, cancer patients have a unique set of needs that include emotional and financial support, physical care, information and resource sharing, and everyday practical help such as transportation to appointments. 

Collectively referred to as psychosocial needs, some of these are easily fulfilled by family members and close friends, but for the rest there is much solace to be found in support groups. Although each patient’s individual experience varies greatly, and support groups in turn play a wide variety of roles, experts reiterate there are many benefits — fiscal, physical, emotional and social.  

Peer support

“Hearing that you are not alone can inspire you or give you confidence to overcome a difficult symptom or side effect,” writes Dr Lidia Schapira, Editor-in-Chief of the online forum Cancer.net. “Peer support may help explain treatment options, provide deeper understanding of a diagnosis and point to new research relevant to your situation.”

In the UAE, a wide range of groups are trying to address the psychosocial needs of cancer patients. The non-profit Emirates Cancer Foundation offers information about all types of cancer and their treatments in the country. Breast Cancer Arabia says it provides the three things a patient will need: information about cancer and its treatment, places to get treatment, and an online community support system. 

In Sharjah, the volunteer-based Friends of Cancer Patients (FOCP) has continuously delivered moral, financial and clinical support to patients and their families. Abu Dhabi-based Bosom Buddies, founded in 2003 by a small group of breast cancer survivors, now holds monthly support meetings, while two organisations go the distance in Al Ain, including Angels of Mercy Cancer Society and the non-profit Moazzara — Emirates Association for Cancer Support. 

In Dubai, Omniyat Dania aims to bring joy to children with cancer,  while the Al Jalila Foundation offers financial support to those in need.

“The struggle many patients face is not only emotional but financial, as the required treatment can be very expensive and often patients’ medical insurance is insufficient,” says Al Jalila CEO Dr Abdul Kareem Sultan Al Olama. “Al Jalila Foundation, through our A’awen programme, offers hope and healing to patients in need of quality medical care.” 

The foundation’s efforts go further: it has contributed nearly Dh2 million to breast cancer research since its first grant cycle in 2014. “With the high prevalence of breast cancer among women in the UAE, it is clear that research and improved treatment are integral to combating the disease and ultimately saving lives,” Dr Al Olama says. 

Dubai is also home to a group of passionate volunteers, led by Rania Amer, who helps cancer survivors and patients find suitable jobs. “Many patients either lose their jobs or resign from work to pursue treatment. But once they are ready to come back, they face two challenges — landing a job and coping with the chronic symptoms of the disease,” explains Amer, who is currently engaged in registering the group. 

“They do not need sympathy; they need leaders with empathy. We are working with companies to help them understand the challenges of cancer patients and survivors in the workplace.” 

For every need

Amer says every type of support group is important. “Support groups play an important role in a cancer patient’s life because the challenges of cancer are many. Each group tackles a different challenge that helps a patient overcome it.” 

One of the most fruitful results in the UAE is evidenced at Al Jalila Foundation after they partnered with Brest Friends, a cancer support group established in 2005 by Dr Houriya Kazim – the UAE’s first female surgeon.  

Many members of the group have become zealous ambassadors. “Former cancer patients have now become our biggest advocates and work tirelessly to raise funds for research and for patients unable to afford quality treatment,” Dr Al Olama says. “Last October, our members organised almost 100 events to raise more than Dh1.5 million. Our goal is to keep this message alive beyond October and it is very encouraging to see a growing movement in that direction.”