Inside Rethink’s Virtual Support Groups: A Q&A with Shawna Rich Ginsberg

Virtual Support

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and orders to physical distance, Rethink has been offering women living with breast cancer psychosocial support through Virtual Support Groups. Rethink, together with alum and trained psychotherapist, Shawna Rich Ginsberg, have been navigating new yet familiar territory and providing a safe space to learn, connect and reflect, that’s needed now more than ever.

Why is virtual support so important for young women with breast cancer?

After being at Rethink for almost a decade, I heard many stories from young women feeling completely alienated from their peers. Dreams of their careers and a family instantly crushed. And their feelings of safety stolen by coming face-to-face with their mortality.  In some ways, the world is going through this process now with COVID and people are FREAKING OUT. There is a tremendous amount of resiliency in the cancer community, but people need support more than ever as they navigate a virus that attacks those with vulnerable immune systems.

How is the virtual support group different than in-person ones?

There is so much to be learned and understood through the physical nuances of communication in a therapeutic/supportive frame. In a virtual setting, it is much harder to read these cues and creating intimacy is challenging. That being said, people have adapted very quickly by really LISTENING and using language to communicate empathy and understanding. In the Zoom platform, we use the chatbox as a way for participants to send messages to each other throughout the group. It’s been really heartwarming to see people offering words of encouragement or understanding in the same way they would with a nod or a blink.

How has the response been so far?  Are women connecting?

YES! The response has been overwhelmingly positive. People show up every week for themselves and each other. That peer support piece is very present even with the virtual platform – participants are referring to what someone else said or sending a message of hope through the chatbox. Participants are connected about cancer, COVID, their relationships and uncertainty about the future. The group helps to alleviate alienation and personal suffering creating a true space of “we are all in this together” despite the segregation happening all over the world. 

What has the online offering allowed Rethink to do that hadn’t been done before?

Rethink has been offering support online for several years though Rethink’s Young Women’s Network and social media channels. However, this new group has allowed people to connect deeply from all over the world – from all over Canada, Europe and the US.  Moderated by a professional, there is an opportunity for participants to learn some psychoeducation around affect regulation, trauma, relationships, communication strategies, grief and radical acceptance. They also can reflect on what they are learning and share in a safe space that is moderated by a therapist.

Who can join? Is this only for women in active treatment?

Anyone with a breast cancer diagnosis can join no matter the stage. We have women who are newly diagnosed, who are stage 4 and those who are five years from their diagnosis. It is for anyone who is struggling right now with the realities of COVID including isolation, relationship challenges at home, fear, anxiety and depression. Or just needs to connect.

What’s surprised you about taking support online?

Two things – one is how easily my skills have translated to an online modality. All those years of Zoom meetings and connecting with women and partners remotely have paid off and it has felt like second hat. I am able to convey a sense of holding space for these women through the screen. The other is how the women are able to hold space for each other even without the nuances of body language. People are pausing at the right time, asking respectful questions and validating what they are hearing all behind their screen. It will never replace the warmth and connection we feel in the physical company of others, but it is helping so much.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to women affected by breast cancer during the pandemic?

BE KIND TO YOURSELF. It is such a stressful time right now for everyone, but for those with cancer, it is especially draining. No one is at their best and it is important to have the self-compassion to accept that in order to forgive yourself and move forward. If you are having a tough day, then own it and do what you need to do. You are entitled to feel sorry for yourself and you have the right to grieve. Once you give yourself that permission you will be better equipped to find strategies and solutions. Resilience is not about being born strong – it is about building the muscle to overcome adversity. You can only do that once you give some space for feelings like sadness and anger. If you need someone to witness that pain, then reach out – we are all in this together.

virtual support

Shawna Rich-Ginsberg is a trained psychotherapist and will be completing her Master of Social Work and opening a private practice in August 2020.  She spent 10 years at Rethink leading education and support programming to women affected by breast cancer.

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50 Carroll Street Toronto, Ontario Canada M4M 3G3
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