In Brief

Women with breast cancer who voice their fears and anxiety are more successful in coping with the disease mentally and physically, finds a new study in APA's Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (Vol. 68, No. 5).

Annette L. Stanton, PhD, and a team of researchers at the University of Kansas selected 92 women who had received primary treatment--including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation--for type I or II breast cancer within 20 weeks prior to the commencement of the study. This time period marks an early phase in the detection and treatment of breast cancer when patients often undergo extreme emotional suffering. In addition, the 20-week restriction acted as a control over various medical treatments that otherwise may have discredited their results.

After a three-month follow-up, the authors concluded that breast cancer patients who articulated their feelings initially exhibited little mental anguish and increased optimism about their health. Benefits of emotional expression such as fewer cancer-related complications and medical appointments were evident even a few months after the patients' diagnoses.

The continual release of emotion allows breast cancer patients to reassert the personal power they lost to disease, according to the researchers' findings published in the paper "Emotional expressive coping predicts psychological and physical adjustment to breast cancer."

Indeed, the study indicates that repeated expression helps patients "begin to distinguish what one can and cannot control to channel energy toward attainable goals, and to generate alternate pathways for bolstering control," the authors write. By articulating feelings of vulnerability, patients may actually gain a more positive outlook. Consequently, they may better adjust to their illness--bypassing many of the damaging physical consequences of negativity--and even discover a constructive facet of confronting physical adversity.

The study also implies, however, that a protracted period of emotional release can backfire and become a detrimental coping practice. Whereas women who express their feelings about cancer originally adapted quickly and required less long-term medical care than those who suppressed their emotions, subjects who initiated this coping practice at the study's commencement actually manifested greater mental anguish at the end of three months. More research is required to account for this drawback, but the authors suggest that constant reflection upon one's emotional state eventually can develop into "cognitive rumination...chronically and passively thinking about feelings...which has been demonstrated to exacerbate distress."

The authors nevertheless reveal that short-term psychologically based coping strategies of a social nature--such as releasing anxiety through writing or seeking empathy in support groups--can help patients deal with their illness and render them more likely to use medical resources.