The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, also suggests that though these patients seek emotional assistance from support groups, their needs are likely to change over time.
Although clinicians and others frequently advise cancer patients to join support groups to deal with the psychological consequences of their diagnosis, a minority of cancer patients actually join.
"There's a good deal of research about what kinds of groups are helpful for cancer patients, but less information about what they themselves are looking for," said Allen Sherman, Ph.D., lead author of the study.
The scientists carried out a survey amongst 425 patients diagnosed with a variety of cancers, and asked them to describe what they actually sought from the support groups.
The results showed that 65 percent were interested in attending a group. Although Sherman said that this "didn't mean they would necessarily vote with their feet, it was higher than what was expected."
Most study participants wanted practical medical information about cancer delivered immediately after diagnosis or during treatment. However, about twice as many prioritised medical information (38 percent) over emotional support (20 percent) and 30 percent wanted a focus on wellness and health promotion.
Recent studies have suggested that these support groups do not increase survival time, but they do improve coping skills and mood.
Other studies have shown that once people begin to participate in groups, their preferences shift. New members tend to seek medical information, but established members most value the emotional support and sense of community.
The current study also found that cancer patients preferred "drop-in" groups that they could attend as needed, and that nearly half did not mind if the groups contained people with many different types of cancer.
According to Fred Rotgers, associate professor of psychology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, the most important study finding was that "patients often want very different things than doctors think they want, and what patients want very likely shifts over time."
He said an important implication was that "support groups might be more useful if they were delivered in a patient-driven fashion, with patients starting off in a group that provided what they most want, and then providing subsequent support groups to address patient needs as they changed."
"Brief groups that focus on medical information and health improvement might be a useful gateway to later groups that address coping resources, existential concerns and emotional support," Prof. Sherman said.
The study appears in the September-October issue of the journal, Psychosomatics.