Colorectal cancer is a life-changing diagnosis. Patients often feel like they’re on their own even with the support of family and friends. However, increased focus on peer-to-peer support has shown a promising way forward for cancer patients coping with the emotional and physical challenges of this disease.
While the research on peer support is still emerging, the Colorectal Cancer Alliance knows just how impactful it can be. As the only colorectal cancer nonprofit providing individually matched peer support, the Alliance hopes to bring more awareness to this amazing resource. The Buddy Program improves quality of life among colorectal cancer patients and caregivers through hope, inspiration, and comradery.
What Is Peer-to-Peer Support?
Peer-to-peer support involves connecting patients with similar experiences in group settings, online forums, and one-on-one conversations. The goal of peer support is to provide a safe space for patients to discuss their feelings and challenges with others who can relate to what they are going through.
Patients may feel like they are burdening their loved ones or that they cannot truly understand what they are going through. By connecting with others who have a similar diagnosis to themselves, patients can find a sense of community and belonging. They can discuss their experiences without fear of judgment or misunderstanding.
Peer support can also help patients feel empowered and in control of their health. By connecting with peers, patients can learn about different treatment options, ask questions, and share their own experiences. This can help patients take an active role in their treatment and recovery.
Research on Peer-to-Peer Support in Cancer Patients
Research has shown that peer-to-peer support can have a significant impact on cancer patients’ quality of life and medical outcomes. While further investigation is still needed, here are some of the positive findings thus far.
- One study completed in 2019 on peer support intervention in breast cancer patients showed “more positive effects … across peer interventions,” with significantly improved positive emotions amongst patients.
- Another study completed in 2020 on peer support for people affected by prostate cancer showed a notable improvement in quality of life amongst online support group participants.
- A 2022 study on peer support in cancer patients reported a “significant increase in psychological empowerment” in peer support group participants.
- In a 2011 study, “physical, vitality, social functioning, [emotional] and mental health showed significant improvement [amongst participants of breast cancer peer support groups],” with significantly higher outcomes than that of nonparticipants.
- A study completed in 2019 on the effect of peer support of colorectal cancer patients showed “those exposed to peer support reported positive effects on attitudes toward chemotherapy.”
These studies demonstrate that peer-to-peer support can be a complementary approach to improving cancer patients’ mental and physical health outcomes.
The Alliance’s Buddy Program
The Alliance’s Buddy Program is managed by Marielle McLeod, Certified Bilingual Patient and Family Support Navigator. Marielle is a survivor herself. She has a connection to the diagnosis and brings great intention to the quality of matches, mentors, and peer support relationships. She is also a Spanish speaker, personally mentoring all of the Spanish-speaking patients in the program.
This free, nationwide program has over 600 mentors across different ages, backgrounds, and diagnoses. The Buddy Program is currently on target to make twice as many matches as last year.
“I use my personal connection to the disease to improve the quality of outcomes for patients, mentors, and caregivers,” Marielle said. “I love how we can use a not-so-great time in our lives to help people endure the not-so-great things in theirs.”
The Alliance acknowledges that everyone has their own experience with a colorectal cancer diagnosis. Still, the program's goal is to connect people with similar experiences and backgrounds so they feel supported and related to.
“We intend to have people that are trained, emotionally available, and healed from their cancer so that they are fully ready to mentor the next person,” Marielle said. “We focus on education and training to ensure buddies are prepared and present.”
Some of the education that the Buddy Program incorporates to prepare mentors include:
- Communication with friends, family, and work colleagues regarding the diagnosis
- Cancer treatment options and managing side effects
- The impact of cancer on relationships
- Food and nutrition information
- Topics surrounding intimacy
- Ostomy support
Mentors are also trained on what not to say, and are instructed to stay away from giving unsolicited advice surrounding medical treatment.
“We know that the benefit of the Buddy Program lies in talking to others with similar experiences, making participants feel more at ease, reducing stress, and increasing connection,” Marielle said. “Some people do need direct one-on-one support, and that’s why we offer navigation and referrals to specific support programs. We don’t want people to think the Buddy Program is the whole solution to all their psychological, social, or emotional distress. Still, we know that it holds incredible value.”
Buddy Participants Share Their Success With the Program
While no two cancer paths are the same, the Alliance understands just how important it is to match people in the program with the right buddy. There is a lot of intention that goes behind the scenes and it shows up when talking to participants.
“I enjoy the Buddy Program and am very happy with my buddy, who is now a friend,” said Barbara Virzi, stage IV colon cancer survivor. “She is very pleasant and a joy to talk with.”
The Buddy Program allows for connections and lasting friendships that may not have happened otherwise.
“I absolutely love my buddy!” said Joan Smith, stage III rectal cancer patient. “We are the best of friends, and I feel like we’ve known each other forever. We go together like salt and pepper, and Cathy knows just what to say to make me feel better.”
The program is not only beneficial to mentees. It’s also a meaningful experience for many of the mentors as well.
"I love being a buddy because it allows me to show other stage IV cancer patients that there is still hope,” said Randy Lopez, a colon cancer survivor of more than 20 years.
It can be empowering to know that there is purpose in our challenges, and that we can use painful moments of growth as lifelines for others.
"I enjoy being a sounding board and sharing tips on how to manage the psychological and physical challenges that come with this type of diagnosis," said Steve Ratner, stage III colon cancer survivor.
So many people have seen impactful results after joining the Buddy Program. As this incredible resource continues to grow, the Alliance hopes to help more CRC patients and survivors as they navigate the difficult terrain of a colorectal cancer diagnosis.
Help Bring Awareness to the Buddy Program & Impacts of Peer Support
Cancer can be a challenging and isolating experience, but peer-to-peer support can help patients feel less alone and more empowered. Research has shown that peer support can improve patients’ quality of life and medical outcomes by providing emotional support, information, and a sense of community.
The Buddy Program offers a unique resource. While peer support is not a replacement for medical treatment or professional counseling, it can be a complementary approach to managing the emotional and practical challenges of a colorectal cancer diagnosis.
“Talking about your bowels is often not a comfortable experience,” said Marianne Pearson, Senior Director of Patient Navigation at the Colorectal Cancer Alliance. “There is stigma around this type of diagnosis. Through the Buddy Program, we hope to break down communication barriers by helping people talk about this disease and normalizing it through the comradery of shared experience.”
If you or a loved one are experiencing a colorectal cancer diagnosis, consider joining the Alliance’s Buddy Program. You can also help spread the word by sharing this post on your social media pages. The Alliance helps colorectal cancer patients feel seen and heard. The Buddy Program serves as a powerful tool to remind CRC patients that they matter, there is hope, and they are not alone.
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