The need for psychological treatment may not end when medical treatment does. In fact, emotional recovery may take longer than physical recovery and is sometimes less predictable. Although societal pressure to get everything back to normal is intense, breast cancer survivors need time to create a new self-image that incorporates both the experience and their changed bodies. Psychologists can help women achieve that goal and learn to cope with such issues as fears about recurrence and impatience with life's more mundane problems.
Can psychological treatment help the body, too?
Absolutely. Take the nausea and vomiting that often accompany chemotherapy, for example. For some women, these side effects can be severe enough to make them reject further treatment efforts. Psychologists can teach women relaxation exercises, meditation, self-hypnosis, imagery or other skills that can effectively relieve nausea without the side effects of pharmaceutical approaches.
Psychological treatment has indirect effects on physical health as well. Researchers already know that stress suppresses the body's ability to protect itself. What they now suspect is that the coping skills that psychologists teach may actually boost the immune system's strength. In one well-known study, for example, patients with advanced breast cancer who underwent group therapy lived longer than those who did not.
Research also suggests that patients who ask questions and are assertive with their physicians have better health outcomes than patients who passively accept proposed treatment regimens.
Psychologists can empower women to make more informed choices in the face of often-conflicting advice and can help them communicate more effectively with their health care providers. In short, psychologists can help women become more fully engaged in their own treatment. The result is an enhanced understanding of the disease and its treatment, and a greater willingness to do what needs to be done to get well again.
What type of psychological treatment is helpful?
A combination of individual and group treatment sometimes works best. Individual sessions with a licensed psychologist typically emphasize the understanding and modification of patterns of thinking and behavior. Group psychological treatment with others who have breast cancer gives women a chance to give and receive emotional support and learn from the experiences of others. To be most effective, groups should be made up of women at similar stages of the disease and led by psychologists or other mental health professionals with experience in breast cancer treatment.
Whether aimed at individuals or groups, psychological interventions strive to help women adjust to their diagnoses, cope with treatment and come to terms with the disease's impact on their lives. Psychologists typically ask women open-ended questions about their assumptions, ideas for living life more fully and other matters. Although negative thoughts and feelings are addressed, most psychological interventions focus on problem-solving as women meet each new challenge.
A breast cancer diagnosis can severely impair a woman's psychological functioning, which in turn can jeopardize her physical health. It doesn't have to be that way. Women who seek help from licensed psychologists with experience in breast cancer treatment can actually use the mind-body connection to their advantage to enhance both mental and physical health.
Copyright © 1997 by the American Psychological Association. All rights reserved.