Therapy for Breast Cancer Is Not a Life-Saver; It Increases Quality of Life

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Earlier this summer, I wrote about the connection between group psychotherapy for women with metastatic breast cancer, and their survival rates. Or rather, the lack of a connection: contrary to previous studies from the 1980s and ’90s, an array of later studies have proven that women do NOT, in fact, prolong their lives by taking part in psychotherapeutic support groups for breast cancer.

    But the current body of information hasn’t stopped scientists from continuing to explore the putative link. A study published in the September 1, 2007 edition of Cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, again shows no connection between therapy and prolonged life. Ironically, this latest information comes from by Dr. David Spiegel of Stanford University, who spearheaded those original studies showing therapy DID prolong life for breast cancer patients.

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    Speigel and colleagues have spent the past three years trying to replicate their earlier results; but no dice. For those of us with metastatic breast cancer, group therapy apparently isn’t the magic bullet. (Except, interestingly, for those with ER-negative breast cancer, who survived more than three times as long when participating in group therapy, compared with those who didn’t participate. I hope further studies will explore this interesting result.)

    No, therapy isn’t a life saver. But it’s probably a life-enhancer. Most people, when they look down the road towards the rest of their life, see a path that winds off into the distance, disappearing into the hills and horizons of old age. Women with metastatic breast cancer, looking down that same road, see a big cliff in the near distance. They know they’re probably going to step off that cliff, sooner rather than later. (The women in Dr. Speigel’s current study had a median survival rate of between 31 and 33 months; that’s just about 2 1/2 years.) So, if the odds are you’re going to die soon, what do you do?

    Well, a woman who fears she’s dying has lots of choices. She can disregard death’s probable inevitability and fight to the end, taking all the treatment her physicians are willing to dole out to her. She can retreat into a shell of fear and anger and linger there, becoming ever more bitter and lonely. She can live a “normal” life, going about her business: work, play, family, friends. She can (with enough money) fly to Hawaii… or at least to Disneyworld. Or she can decide to use her remaining time to look deep into her soul, and try to discover as much as she can about herself, and about dying, before she’s gone. That’s the probable goal of those who join group psychotherapy sessions–a desire to live the examined life, for whatever time is left. To connect with those going through the same experience; to find comfort in numbers.

    If you’re a woman with metastatic breast cancer, which path have you chosen? If someday you develop metastatic cancer–which option do you think you’ll choose? If you’ve been in group psychotherapy, how do you feel about it? Please share your comments below.

Published On: July 30, 2007