While not extending their lives, most women with breast cancer who underwent group psychotherapy improved the quality of their lives — reporting less pain, distress and anxiety. The new research also found that group therapy prolonged survival and improved quality of life for women with a specific type of tumor — estrogen receptor (ER) negative tumors.
The study led by Dr. David Spiegel of Stanford University School of Medicine in California ran counter to findings published in 1989 by a group also led by Spiegel that women in psychotherapy groups outlived other breast cancer patients.
The study appeared in the latest issue of the journal Cancer.
Breast cancer patients took part in the study at three sites in Northern California beginning in 1991, and were tracked for up to a decade. Nearly all died during the study.
Half took part in weekly 90-minute therapy sessions involving three to 15 patients led by two therapists and also were given education literature about breast cancer. The other half got only the literature.
They found no difference in the overall survival between the two groups. However, the study did find that subjects who underwent group therapy felt less distress and decreased anxiety. In short, while the quantity of their life did not increase, the quality of their life did.
The research also discovered that the median survival for patients with ER-negative breast cancer was 21 months longer than for the group that received literature only.
Research published earlier this year found similar results. Kissane et al. (2007) found that group psychotherapy helped with depression, reduced hopelessness and helplessness, reduced trauma symptoms, and improved social functioning in the 227 women with breast cancer studied, but did not increase survival rate.
In 1989, Spiegel published research that suggested group psychotherapy for women with metastatic breast cancer prolonged survival. The study showed that women who had group therapy for one year were more likely to survive another 18 months after diagnosis compared with patients who did not have group therapy. Four subsequent studies supported this finding while six of them did not.
Metastatic breast cancer is cancer that started in the breast and has spread to other parts of the body such as the lungs and bones. It is an advanced stage of cancer and much harder to treat than one that has not yet spread.
Estrogen receptor (ER) negative breast cancer is a type that does not thrive in an estrogen rich environment and therefore does not respond to anti-estrogen hormone therapy.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, second to skin cancer, and it is the leading cause of cancer death in women after lung cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, 178,000 women in the US will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year. There are currently over 2 million women living with breast cancer in the US who have received treatment for it.
The chance of a woman having invasive breast cancer at some point in her life is about 1 in 8, and the chance of dying from it is about 1 in 33.