Two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer, women had 4 times more positive than negative thoughts about the changes they experienced because of the disease, according to a small study. And women who took part in a counseling program had even more positive thoughts.
The research was published online in the March 2019 issue of Health Psychology. Read the abstract of “Lemons to lemonade: Effects of a biobehavioral intervention for cancer patients on later life changes.”
Stress before and after breast cancer treatment
For many people, a breast cancer diagnosis can bring out a number of difficult emotions, including fear, anger, and resentment. Coping with these feelings, plus the stress of a diagnosis and deciding on a treatment plan, can be a big challenge.
When you’re done with treatment, you may feel relieved, but you also may miss the regular contact you had with your doctors and with other patients. You also may feel anxious, depressed, or angry if you have lingering treatment side effects, such as pain or loss of libido.
While studies have found that several types of counseling and therapy programs can help improve quality of life in the short-term for people who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s unclear if these programs offer long-term benefits for people in the years after treatment is completed.
So researchers at The Ohio State University designed a study to see if a specific counseling program offered long-term benefits.
How this study was done
The study included 160 women who had been diagnosed with stage II or stage III breast cancer:
- 91% were white
- average age was 51
- 75% had a partner
- 90% were diagnosed with stage II breast cancer
- all the women had surgery
- 86% were treated with chemotherapy
- 59% were treated with radiation therapy
- 79% were treated with hormonal therapy
At the beginning of the study, all the women were assessed for a number of factors that can affect quality of life, including:
- cancer stress
- depressive symptoms
The women also were asked to write down the ways their lives had changed as a result of the breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. They then labeled each change as positive, negative, or neutral.
The women were then randomly assigned to one of two groups:
- One group (85 women) took part in a year-long counseling program called a biobehavioral intervention.
- The other group (75 women) didn’t go through the counseling program.
All the women were assessed for the same factors again, 12 months and 24 months after the study started. During these assessments, the women also revisited the changes in their lives and reevaluated them as positive, negative, or neutral.
The biobehavioral intervention counseling program
This particular counseling program was designed to reduce stress, improve quality of life, and increase positive health behaviors, among other goals.
The 12-month program was made up of a number of modules focusing on:
- understanding and reducing stress
- information on breast cancer and its treatments
- problem solving
- social support
- body image/sexuality
- health behaviors
Women went through the program in small groups that ranged from 8 to 12 people. The groups were led by two clinical psychologists.
Each group met weekly for 1.5 hours for 18 weeks, followed by one session per month for 8 months.
In total, the women took part in 26 sessions during the 12-month program.
Overall, the women in the study listed 998 life changes related to breast cancer. Four times as many of those changes were labeled positive rather than negative.
Women who took part in the counseling program reported even more positive changes in their lives than women who didn’t take part in the counseling program. On average, the women in the program said 13 positive changes happened to them, compared to 10 positive changes for women who weren’t part of the counseling program.
There were no real differences between the two groups of women in the number of negative or neutral changes they reported.
"Some people want to label cancer survivors as being traumatized for life. That's just not accurate. Instead, individuals are resilient," said Barbara Andersen, professor of psychology at The Ohio State University and coauthor of the study. "We found that most patients in our study found a way to make lemonade out of lemons, especially those who participated in our intervention program.
"The intervention included components on improving stress management, getting social support from friends and family and making behavioral changes in their diet or activity levels," she continued. "These components are closely related to the most frequent and most positive thoughts about change reported by the patients."
What this means for you
More and more women are surviving many, many years beyond an initial breast cancer diagnosis. So the question of how to live the healthiest life possible — both physically and emotionally — is increasingly important.
While this study was small, the results are very encouraging and echo the results of other studies suggesting that stress management programs can help women maintain long-term quality of life and psychosocial health.
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and are feeling overwhelmed and stressed, you may want to talk to your doctor. You can ask about stress management programs in your area and talk about the ones that might be a good fit for your unique situation. You also may want to ask someone on your medical team about what’s available at your hospital or treatment center.
In the Breastcancer.org Complementary and Holistic Medicine pages, you can learn about 16 therapies, many of which can ease stress, fear, and anxiety. You can read about:
- what to expect
- how to find a qualified practitioner
- important things to consider before trying a technique
Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor
Reviewed by: Brian Wojciechowski, M.D., medical adviser