Examining the Mutual Benefits of a Peer Support Program to Facilitate Adaptation Among Women Affected by Breast/Ovarian Cancer: The Sharsheret Experience

November 2017 Vol 8, No 11
Adina Fleischmann, LSW
Sharsheret, Teaneck, NJ
Melissa Rosen, MA
Sharsheret, Teaneck, NJ
Elana Silber, MBA
Sharsheret, Teaneck, NJ

Background: Frank Riessman’s Helper Theory (1965) posits that peer support networks can be powerful tools to extend care delivery—benefiting both the giver and receiver of informal care. Studies continue to support this theory and find that cancer survivors derive strong psychosocial and health benefits from peers helping those undergoing treatment, also known as a natural helper model (Rini, 2014). Our project describes the contribution of a telephone-based peer support network developed by Sharsheret that is derived from this model by connecting those newly diagnosed with or at high risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer with one-on-one trained volunteer peer supporters who share similar diagnoses and experiences.

Objectives: Sharsheret offers a wide array of programs for Jewish and non-Jewish women and their families facing breast and ovarian cancer. This abstract will describe factors associated with uptake and delivery of its unique one-on-one peer support program, a natural helper model, populated by lay community peer mentors.

Methods: The current findings come from a secondary analysis of anonymous annual self-report surveys collected from Sharsheret’s 2016 Annual Survey. The 2016 annual evaluation survey was distributed via e-mail to over 2000 women who had been involved with Sharsheret during the year. A total of 461 women responded to the survey, reflecting a population response rate of 20%. The purpose of the annual survey is to review feedback and inform key recommendations for expansion and quality. The survey included a combination of both open- and closed-ended items, with Likert-type responses, and were program-specific to 9 of Sharsheret’s signature resources. Evaluation of the peer support network assessed engagement and program satisfaction, demographics, and overall satisfaction with Sharsheret.

Results: A total of 461 individuals completed an evaluation (age range = 23-81 years; 71% married/partnered; 88% mothers). Most were breast/ovarian cancer survivors (58%) or at high familial risk for developing cancer (20%). Of those contacting Sharsheret, 31% were referred to the peer support program, and 87% of those referred spoke with their assigned peer supporter. The most common reason for not speaking with a peer supporter was a lack of emotional readiness. Individuals who participated in the program and received peer support (Mage = 49.76, SDage = 11.02) commonly found it helpful (75.2%) and believed it provided useful information (70.0%) and emotional support (73.1%). Further, 74.1% of individuals reported that their peer supporter shared experiences that were beneficial to their cancer journey regardless of age or cancer diagnosis. Among the 69 peer supporters completing an evaluation (Mage = 52.41, SDage = 9.97), 66.7% reported speaking with a client in the past 12 months. Of those, 66.7% reported deriving personal benefit from being in the program, 62.3% offered useful information, and 62.3% provided emotional support. Peer supporters’ primary reasons for joining the program included the opportunity to offer advice to others (75.4%) and give back to their community (63.8%). Engagement with peer support training was highly diverse and cost-effective, such as participation in remote webinars (46.4%), reading manuals (59.4%), and consulting with a professional staff member (47.8%).

Conclusions: Peer support for younger Jewish women affected by and with breast/ovarian cancer benefited both givers and receivers of informal care, was well-utilized, and was sustained by a range of training modalities, including training webinars and manuals. The majority of peer supporters expressed a strong desire to give back to their community that assisted them during their own cancer journey and reported receiving personal benefit from participating as a peer supporter. In effect, Sharsheret and its social workers are building the foundation for an intrinsically motivated, community-based social support network and realizing its mission of linking together Jewish women, families, and communities impacted by breast and ovarian cancer. This effort has the potential to greatly improve constituents’ health outcomes and ultimately scale up Sharsheret’s resources offered to the broader community, including phone-based, online, and printed resources.

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Last modified: August 10, 2023

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