Who cares? Social support and women with breast cancer

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Judith Long


Nursing, Mental health, Social psychology, Women, Breast cancer

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


Social support is a powerful coping resource for those stressed by crisis or severe illness. The foundation of policy measures designed to reintegrate mentally disadvantaged into the community, it is the basis for self-help groups designed to aid those dealing with a variety of social and human ills. Ironically, social support is a concept that, intuitively understood, avoids precise definition, measurement, and operationalization. Little is known about how or when social support is most effective, how mobilized, or what impedes or enhances its effects.

This qualitative research was designed to uncover the natural support behaviors of social network members of women severely stressed by breast cancer. Feminist methodology, informed by a feminist philosophy and perspective, provided the framework and guided all research aspects. The purpose was to determine: how women defined and mobilized social support, what types of support they found effective at what specific intervals, what forms of support they believed enhanced or impaired their ability to cope with threats they faced.

The research is based on initial interviews with 121 women newly diagnosed with breast cancer. Intensive interviews with twenty women and a person deemed a significant supporter were conducted at three and twelve months following diagnosis. Interviews focused on both the experience of breast cancer and social support.

Social support and breast cancer were found complex multi-dimensional constructs. Women were agentic in mobilizing social support from a variety of sources. Effective support varied in form and type at intervals during the experience. Multiple myths and stigmas associated with cancer and breast amputation impeded the woman's mobilization of support and support attempts by members of her social network.

The research findings cogently define components of social support useful in the establishment of early intervention programs for cancer patients compatible with the complexity of processes they, and network members face dealing with cancer's unique threats and myths. Findings also provide a framework for further research on the cancer experience of disadvantaged and minority women poorly represented in cancer and social support research.


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