In what could be major step in the battle against breast cancer, an 11-year study by Ohio State University’s Department of Psychology shows that psychological intervention may very well improve a woman’s survival rate.
The study showed that breast cancer victims might have a better chance of survival, said Barbara Andersen, Ph.D., professor of psychology, if they join a quality psychological intervention program conducted by an experienced therapist.
Of the 227 women who joined in the study, 114 received psychological intervention programs, while 113 received assessment only, Andersen said. Findings of the study established that patients receiving the intervention had less than half the risk of death from breast cancer compared to those who did not receive intervention and had a reduced risk of death from all causes, not just cancer.
Published in the December issue of Cancer, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, the study indicates that reducing stress that can accompany cancer diagnosis and treatment can have a significant impact of patients’ survival.
Andersen said the findings could have a major impact on the study of breast cancer. “We certainly hope it has a major impact. We worked really hard to find a study to answer the question: Can psychological intervention reduce the risk for reoccurrence of breast cancer and death? We’re confident our findings are real.”
Many researchers have theorized that providing mental health services in addition to cancer care may improve patients’ health and even prolong their survival. But studies linking psychotherapy to improved survival have had inconsistent results. According to Andersen, this study is another step in helping breast cancer victims live longer. “That’s exactly what we found,” she added.
Using empirically supported intervention components, the study demonstrated that qualified intervention programs provide significant opportunities for people to change, to ease pain, to change emotions and more importantly to maintain those changes.
Psychologists led all intervention programs. Interventions included strategies to reduce stress, enhance their relationship with friends and family, coping effectively, improving mood, altering health behavior, especially with diets, and maintaining adherence to cancer treatment and care. Anderson said the study was weak in the area of exercise, but she is confident that exercise plays a significant role in overall health.
Just as important, the study had a significant impact on immune enhancement. Effects of the study concerning immunity were very robust, she said. A large sample of cancer victims who came into the study had high levels of stress that were related to lower levels of immunity.
“We know that in those who joined interventions their immunity went up. We’re not guessing. We know that intervention affected immunity,” she said. “The interventions had a very powerful psychological effect and very powerful behavioral effects. It’s clear that they had health benefits … and survival benefits.”
Said Andersen, “Interventions may impact immune changes that are secondary to stress hormones that may promote cancer growth or metastasis and that in addition to treating cancer patients with powerful anti-tumor medications, it is also important to treat psychological distress as well.”
The American Cancer society says there are in excess of 100,000 potential breast cancer victims in this country. Andersen hopes the results of this pragmatic study will persuade psychologists to start cancer patients intervention groups around the country.
“If efficacious psychological interventions to reduce stress are delivered early they will improve mental health and treatment-relevant behavior, and potentially, biologic outcomes,” Andresen said.