Caring Bridges Head & Neck Cancer Support Group

Melissa Hall and Marci Nilsen

A head and neck cancer support group for patients and their families is now being run by Marci Nilsen and Melissa Hall. Nilsen, PhD, RN, is Assistant Professor in Nursing and Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, and Co-Director of the UPMC Head and Neck Cancer Survivorship Clinic. Hall is a nurse and outpatient nurse coordinator at Hillman Radiation Oncology.

The support group was originally run by nurses through a St. Clair medical oncology practice, to whom Nilsen had spoken in 2018. In the last several years, Cancer Bridges incorporated it into their offerings. With COVID, it transitioned from in-person to Zoom. In 2021, the facilitators retired, so Cancer Bridges was looking to reinvigorate the group. Staff at Cancer Bridges knew Nilsen and the work she does with survivorship, so they asked if she would be interested in taking it on and to identify a co-facilitator.

When the two took over the Cancer Bridges Head and Neck Cancer Support Group January 2022, the goal was to provide topic discussion and facilitate peer-to-peer support within the group. While it is for patients and their families, there is a mix in attendance. Typically, about 10 patients and 1-2 caregivers participate, but it is still growing.

“The benefit to the virtual option is that we can offer support to individuals in varying areas,” Nilsen said. “Many would not have a support group option close to them. In the future, there may be the potential for a hybrid option.”

The ever changing and growing needs of the support group’s members help dictate topics and guest speakers. In February, Dr. Andy Clump spoke about post-radiation treatment effects and low-level laser therapy. The following month, Dr. Dan Zandberg covered chemotherapy and immunotherapy drugs for head and neck cancer. Olivia Liber, MA, CCC-SLP talked about total laryngectomy and tracheoesophageal voice prosthesis. Last month, Dr. Angela Dean, PsyD discussed coping with social challenges. This month, Alyssa Weinfurther, MS, RD, CSO, LDN, will cover nutrition management.

The group meets on the first Wednesday of the month at 6 pm.