Breast cancer

01 November 2013

Breast cancer a growth experience for some

Although a breast cancer diagnosis can be devastating news, some women say they also go through positive personal growth from the experience.

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 friends.

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 possibilities.

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 post-traumatic growth.

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 said.

"I don't want to give women the impression that they should experience this," she said. "We're just saying that some women do."

'Think positive'

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.

More information

The American Cancer Society offers help in finding support services.


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Breast cancer expert

Dr Gudgeon qualified in Birmingham, England, in 1968. She has more than 40 years experience in oncology, and in 1994 she founded her practice, Cape Breast Care, where she treats benign and malignant breast cancers. Dr Boeddinghaus obtained her qualification at UCT Medical School in 1994 and her MRCP in London in 1998. She has worked extensively in the field of oncology and has a special interest in the hormonal management of breast cancer. She now works with Dr Gudgeon at Cape Breast Care. Read more.

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