The nature of social support as experienced by women treated for breast cancer*


  • Jean Lugton RGN RHV RNT MA(Hons) MSc PhD

    1. Research fellow, Glasgow Caledonian University, Department of Nursing and Community Health, City Campus, Cowcaddens Rd, Glasgow G4 OBA Scotland
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  • *

    This paper is taken from my PhD thesis: The meaning of social support; a descriptive study of informal networks and of health visitors' formal role in supporting the identity of women with breast cancer, Nursing Studies Department, University of Edinburgh (1994)


This paper deals with one aspect of a major study, namely the meaning of social support, a concept loosely used in research and by practitioners. Grounded theory was adapted and discourse analysis used to retrospectively analyse data collected for a previous study exploring health visitors' support of patients with breast cancer. Patients' diagrams of their social networks illustrated their perceptions of support and strain. Respondents indicated that they faced six threats to their identities associated with the breast cancer experience and perceived social support to be actions/attitudes from formal or informal sources which maintained identities for many respondents who wanted to ‘get back to normal’ in their relationships and in their work. Women also needed support to accept identity changes, for example, adapting to an uncertain future. This paper focuses on the effects of informal support on identity. Respondents identified seven main types of informal support from various sources. Larger social networks were more likely to provide the different types of support needed. However, social intimacy of close relationships maintained important aspects of women's identities and were indeed part of their identities. Respondents' social contacts sometimes perceived breast cancer as threatening to their own identities and were consequently unsupportive. Informal support was vital for respondents copies with breast cancer. Nurses should help patients maintain and create their own informal support during illness.