Stress Management May Have Long-Term Benefits For Cancer Survivors

Womans eye
Womans eye

Going through a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment can be one of the most stressful events that a woman ever has to face. Learning to cope with that stress can carry benefits not only in the early stages of recovery, but also years down the road, according to new research.

A University of Miami longitudinal study, which was published online this month in the journal CANCER, showed stress management interventions may reduce depressive symptoms and improve quality of life for breast cancer survivors for up to 15 years.

In 2000, the researchers recruited 240 women who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Half of the women attended a one-day breast cancer education seminar. The other half of the women participated in a 10-week cognitive behavioral stress management (CBSM) intervention, developed by University of Miami researchers. The stress management session included learning methods of relaxation, coping skills and cognitive behavioral techniques such as challenging self-defeating thoughts about life's stressors.

During the first year of breast cancer treatment, the women who participated in the stress management program experienced better quality of life and fewer depressive symptoms than the women who participated in the educational seminar.

"These improvements in psychological status -- less depressive symptoms, less negative mood and more positive mood -- are associated with reductions in circulating serum cortisol levels, improved immune function and decreased inflammatory signaling over the first year of treatment," Michael Antoni, a psychologist at the University of Miami who created the CBSM program, told The Huffington Post.

These effects were also observed in some women during a follow-up 15 years later, suggesting that programs to reduce stress during cancer treatment can have a long-lasting effect on psychological well-being. At the 15-year mark, the levels of depressive symptoms and overall well-being of these women were comparable to those of women without breast cancer.

“Women with breast cancer who participated in the study initially used stress management techniques to cope with the challenges of primary treatment to lower distress," Jamie Stagl, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital and one of the study's lead author, said in a statement. "Because these stress management techniques also give women tools to cope with fears of recurrence and disease progression, the present results indicate that these skills can be used to reduce distress and depressed mood and optimize quality of life across the survivorship period as women get on with their lives.”

The practice of mindfulness -- the cultivation of a focused awareness on the present moment, which is most commonly honed through meditation -- has also been shown to improve stress levels, quality of life and social support for breast cancer survivors. With more and more women surviving breast cancer, it's become increasingly important to focus on interventions that may improve psychological well-being after treatment -- and in doing so, potentially increase longevity.

"Since data... shows that depressive symptoms during breast cancer treatment predict greater odds of mortality over the next eight to 15 years," Antoni said, "it is plausible that these CBSM effects on reduced long-term depressive symptoms may have implications for survival."

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