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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Working with a psychologist to reduce stress can help women whose breast cancer comes back survive longer, U.S. researchers said on Tuesday.
They said reducing stress during breast cancer treatment can keep the immune system strong and improve a woman's quality of life -- and these two factors help women live longer.
They found women who took part in a support group where they were taught to cope with their stress through relaxation techniques and problem solving lived an average of six months longer than other women.
"If you have someone who can provide effective, research-supported ways to reduce your stress, not only will that affect your mental health. It will likely affect your symptoms and your recovery," said Barbara Andersen, a psychology professor at Ohio State University in Columbus.
The study is rare because while it makes sense that therapy might ease some of the stress of cancer treatment, few studies have shown it can boost a woman's survival.
The findings appear in the journal Cancer Clinical Research.
The study included 227 women with newly diagnosed Stage II or III breast cancer.
Women in the study got either a psychological assessment or therapy that helped them understand their stress, learn ways to cope with it, stay on their cancer treatment, improve communication with their doctor and generally feel better emotionally during their treatment and recovery.
"It was far more than the popular notion of support groups of patients in a room talking about their troubles," Andersen said in a telephone interview.
"Certain patients talked about things that were stressful to them, but they also learned really effective ways to cope with that stress."
For example, women were taught relaxation techniques that helped lower stress levels. They were counseled on how to assess the individual strengths of people in their support network -- knowing which people can be counted on for emotional support and which would be most reliable if the woman needed a ride to therapy.
The support group met weekly for four months, than monthly for a total of a year. In prior findings from the study, the team found that women who had taken part in the support group had stronger immune systems and were 45 percent less likely to have their breast cancer come back after 11 years of follow up.
The latest phase of the study looked at the group of women whose cancer did return. Of these 62 women, those who had gotten talk therapy were 59 percent less likely to die from their breast cancer during the study period.
The survival benefit was above and beyond improvements in drug treatments.
Andersen said these results "show enduring benefits" from the support group that had never before been considered or seen.
"An intervention that increased survival would be incredibly valuable. It represents a new tool for improving the lives of women with breast cancer," Sarah Gehlert of Washington University in St. Louis, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement.
Andersen said most women with breast cancer would not be able to take part in such a support group at the moment, but she hopes the findings will encourage insurance companies to pay for them, and for hospitals to begin offering such services.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman