You may have already heard about a new study that has found that women with breast cancer who take part in programs that help reduce stress may be less likely to die of the disease.
The study, reported in the journal Cancer, involved 227 women who had stage II or III breast cancer. After their surgery, the women were randomly assigned to either be part of a counseling group or an assessment group. All of the women had a health evaluation, a psychological assessment, and a blood test. But only the women in the counseling group took part in small group sessions led by two clinical psychologists. In these sessions, which were held weekly for four months and then monthly for eight months, they learned muscle relaxation techniques, problem solving and communication skills, ways to seek support from family members and friends, suggestions for coping with treatment side effects and adhering to cancer treatments. They learned how to improve their overall health through diet and exercise and were encouraged to stop smoking and to limit alcoholic beverages.
The researchers followed the women for 11 years. During that time, both groups received the same standard follow-up care. Sixty-two of the women had a recurrenceâ€”29 in the treatment arm and 33 in the assessment group. The median time to recurrence was 2.8 years in the treatment arm and 2.2 year in the assessment arm. In terms of survival, 54 women who took part in the study diedâ€”24 in the intervention group and 30 in the assessment group. Forty-four of the women died of breast cancerâ€“19 in the intervention arm and 25 in the assessment arm. Among those who died of breast cancer, the median survival time in the intervention arm was 6 years compared with 5 years for the women in the assessment group.
The researchers believe the stress reduction techniques the women learned may have helped build up their immune system which, in turn, increased survival. And they noted that animal studies have found that stress hormones can negatively affect the immune system and promote tumor growth. However, whether this is true in humans as well is not known. (Many things happen in animal modelsâ€”including our ability to cure cancerâ€”that do not happen in actual women.)We now know that both exercise and weight maintenance or weight loss after a breast cancer diagnosis appear to improve survival. Itâ€™s possible that the women who were in the counseling group were more likely to adhere to a good diet or lose weight, which could also have impacted the findings. (This was something the researchers did not study.) Still, itâ€™s great news: A study that looked at something other than drugs that had a positive result.
But before we get too carried away, it is important to note that this is a pretty small study, which means itâ€™s more likely that the results could have occurred by chance. Also, itâ€™s hard not to recall that weâ€™ve been down a similar road before. In 1989, researchers reported that group therapy had been found to extend survival in women with metastatic breast cancerâ€”and interest in support groups increased dramatically. But since then, researchers have reported the results of nine other support group studies involving women with metastatic breast cancer, and nearly all found no evidence of a survival benefit. And, in 2004, researchers reported that a study of women with early stage breast cancer also did not find that group therapy could prolong a woman’s life.
The bottom-line: Support groups and learning stress reduction can be great! As opposed to drugs, these approaches have no side effectsâ€”except for making you feel better and more in control. Many women have found that joining a support group or learning relaxation techniques helps them after their diagnosis and during their treatment. However, more research will need to be done to see if reducing stress really does improve survival and decrease the risk of recurrence.