Although a breast cancer
diagnosis can be devastating news, some women say they also go through positive
personal growth from the experience, a new study finds.
Most people have heard of post-traumatic
stress, but there also is a centuries-old concept that's now known as
"post-traumatic growth" – positive psychological changes a person
has in response to a major life challenge.
In the new study of nearly
700 breast cancer patients, researchers found that, on average, women reported
personal growth in the year or so after their diagnosis. That meant anything
from having a greater appreciation of life to feeling closer to family and
And it wasn't only those
women with a naturally sunny disposition who reported personal growth, said
lead researcher Suzanne Danhauer, an associate professor of public health
sciences at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
At the outset, the study
measured the women's general tendency to be optimistic, and it turned out that
trait was not a strong predictor of personal growth.
Getting more support
"This is not just
about optimism," Danhauer said. "It wasn't only the women who tend to
see the glass half full who reported growth."
On the other hand, women
who said they were getting more support from the people in their lives were
more likely to see personal growth in themselves.
Danhauer said it's possible
that those women had more people they could talk to about their cancer battle – and that, in turn, might support their ability to "grow".
Some women may also make a
conscious decision to take away something positive from their experience, said
Dr Mary Jane Massie, a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre,
in New York City. Massie was not involved with the new study.
"I've been working
with women with breast cancer for a few decades," Massie said. "And
I've heard many women say, 'If I have to go through this, I'm going to make
sure I get something good out of it.'"
The study, published online
recently in the journal Psycho-Oncology, included 653 women recently
diagnosed with breast cancer, mostly stage 1 or stage 2. The women completed a
standard questionnaire on post-traumatic growth within eight months of their
diagnosis, and then again six, 12 and 18 months later.
The questionnaire gauged
people's appreciation of life, their feelings about their personal
relationships, changes in their spirituality and their openness to new
Family and friends
On average, Danhauer's team
found, the women's growth scores on the questionnaire increased over the first
year after their diagnosis, and then levelled off. And women who said their
social support increased after their diagnosis tended to show more
Of course, not everyone has
family and friends to turn to, Massie said. And some cancer patients may not
want to discuss it with the people close to them.
"Some women don't want
to even tell their friends they have cancer," Massie said. "And
that's OK. There's no rule that says you have to tell anyone."
But, she said, it's important
for health systems to have support groups and services in place for cancer
patients who do want to talk.
Even with that kind of
support, though, people with cancer should not feel like they're doing
something wrong if they don't attain some sense of personal growth, Danhauer
"I don't want to give
women the impression that they should experience this," she said.
"We're just saying that some women do."
Danhauer said some people
with cancer can feel pressured to "think positive," and end up
feeling guilty when they don't meet that expectation.
Massie agreed that there is
no single way a cancer patient should feel. She added, though, that personal
growth doesn't need to be a major shift.
"It could be that you
rethink your life in little ways," Massie said. "Maybe you work a
little less, or spend some more time with your daughter."
As for people with other
types of cancer, Danhauer said much of the research on post-traumatic growth
has focused on breast cancer. But there have been some studies – two recent
ones found that lung cancer survivors and young adults who'd survived childhood
cancer did, on average, report personal growth from their experience.
The American Cancer Society
offers help in finding support services.