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Supportive/ Expressive Group Therapy

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

DURHAM, N.C. -- She was terminally ill with cancer and homebound. But it was her turn to host the cancer support group. Determined to fulfill her commitment, she led the meeting from her bed. She was especially sensitive to a first-time attendee, making him feel welcome and comfortable. Having eased the way for others in her group suffering with cancer, she died two weeks later.

"Despite, and perhaps because of, what she was going through, this woman could comfort others," says Dr. David Spiegel, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the psychosocial treatment laboratory at Stanford University School of Medicine. "Group support helps people hope for the best, and prepare for the worst."

Spiegel's Supportive/Expressive group therapy incorporates psychotherapeutic leadership, maintaining group boundaries and safety, facilitating emotional expression and teaching active coping. Among other techniques, group members learn self-hypnosis to induce relaxation, reduce anxiety and control their pain.

"As they learn to manage their internal experience of pain, they feel some control over it," Spiegel said.

"They divide their concerns into a series of problems they can address individually. As they do so, their fears about losing control, becoming isolated from their loved ones and being in pain start to diminish."

Spiegel says his approach helps people with cancer learn to face their illness head on, to keep from being overwhelmed by it, and to die much more peacefully.

"We encourage members to build strong networks of support with one another and to use their common experience of life-threatening illness to feel less alone with their problems. Participants discover that because of and through their experiences, they have something significant to teach others about coping."

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