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Emotional Support Groups Produce Mixed Results For Breast Cancer Patients

Emotional Support Groups Produce Mixed Results For Breast Cancer Patients

A Carnegie Mellon University study of women with breast cancer has shown that those with strong social or family networks and a good relationship with their oncologist may not benefit from participation in emotional support groups and may, in fact, experience negative effects from that kind of counseling.

Carnegie Mellon psychologist Vicki Helgeson, PhD, reported on the preliminary results of a 5-year study of 312 women who were diagnosed with breast cancer. The goal of the research was to determine which women were most likely to benefit from education vs peer discussion groups. All of the women enrolled in the study had been diagnosed with breast cancer 1 to 4 years previously.

The study assessed the effectiveness of two important recovery tools: (1) providing patients with medical information about breast cancer and future health care issues, and (2) offering emotional support via peer discussion groups organized by health care professionals.

More Insight Needed Into Who Benefits and Why

Dr. Helgeson said her study is the first to offer statistical proof that support group interventions produce mixed results. That does not mean peer support groups are bad, she added, just that hospitals and social service agencies need to have more insight into who actually benefits from this kind of help and why.

The group of patients who seemed to benefit the least from these discussion groups were those who reported high levels of support at home from partners, family, friends, and their oncologists. The study demonstrated that peer discussion is potentially harmful for women with strong social networks and, conversely, is beneficial for women with weak social resources.

"Right now, we don’t know why women with lots of social resources appeared to deteriorate over time when they were involved in peer discussion groups. However, we do know that health care workers might want to be cautious about encouraging support groups for all women," said Dr. Helgeson.

Signs of deterioration included feelings of distress or depression and a failure to resume life’s daily routines. These were reported to researchers through interviews and questionnaires. "We know that women who lack any kind of resources--either social or personal--are more likely to benefit from educational resources. Second, people who lack social support from their partners, family, or oncologists also benefited from peer discussion groups," said Dr. Helgeson.

Offering Good Information Important for Recovery

Meanwhile, there was strong proof that good clinical information about breast cancer and follow-up care is an important factor in helping all women feel more in control of their recovery. "The upshot is a pretty clear one for programs aimed at helping women recover from breast cancer. The best thing to do, early on, is to get them information about what they are going through and what they can expect. In this time of limited resources, it’s positive to know that offering good information first does work--and it is easy to implement," said Dr. Helgeson.

 
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