Breast cancer

You might think of breast cancer as a purely physical problem. But psychological interventions can help mind and body.

Every year in this country, 185,000 women hear words no woman wants to hear: "You have breast cancer." Because less than a quarter have a known risk factor, the diagnosis can be a devastating surprise.

Treatment of the breast cancer itself isn't the only thing women need. They -- and their families -- can also benefit from psychological care.

In fact, some studies suggest that psychological interventions may actually help keep women alive. In a 2009 study published in Cancer, for example, researchers tracking women with breast cancer found that after an average of 11 years those who had participated in group therapy were 45 percent less likely to have had their cancer return and 56 percent less likely to have died of the disease.

How a psychologist can help

Licensed psychologists and other mental health professionals with experience in breast cancer treatment can offer help in a variety of areas:
  • Managing distress. A cancer diagnosis can be one of life's most distressing events. After the initial shock subsides, women may experience stress, anxiety, fatigue and depression. In fact, researchers estimate that as many as 60 percent of cancer patients experience depressive symptoms. And stress can suppress the body's ability to protect itself. Psychologists can help women work through their grief and fear and learn how to control stress and depression.

  • Solving problems. Feeling overwhelmed is a natural response to a cancer diagnosis. But some women stop doing things that are good for them and start doing things that may be harmful. They may start eating poorly or stop exercising, for example. They may have trouble sleeping. And they may try to soothe themselves with alcohol, cigarettes or other drugs. Psychologists can help women develop healthier coping strategies. They can teach them how to communicate better with their doctors. They can even help women choose the hospital or treatment that's best for them.

  • Coping with treatment. Treatment for breast cancer can bring its own problems. Nausea and vomiting may accompany chemotherapy, for example. For some women, the side effects of treatment can be so severe they say no to further treatment. Psychologists can teach women how to use relaxation exercises, meditation, self-hypnosis, imagery and other techniques to relieve nausea and other discomfort without the side effects of pharmaceutical approaches.

  • Helping family members cope. A cancer diagnosis can throw relationships into turmoil. A psychologist can help women with breast cancer keep those relationships healthy. A psychologist can help a woman deal with a partner's response, for example, or help a mother explain her illness to her children. Women aren't the only ones who can benefit from psychological assistance. Psychologists often help spouses, parents, children and friends cope with their own feelings as they offer emotional and practical support.