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Women Report Positive Life Changes After Challenge of Breast Cancer

Study shows positive changes of mind may occur during the first year after a breast cancer diagnosis

December 19, 2013

Written By Nicole Katze, MA, Editor and Manager, Publications
Reviewed By Annette L. Stanton, PhD

Despite anxiety that can arise from a breast cancer diagnosis, a recent study shows that in the year that follows women may experience post-traumatic growth, or positive changes to the way they view relationships, themselves or their lives.

Researchers, who published this finding in the journal Psycho-Oncology, believe these positive changes may even continue beyond the first year following diagnosis.

Background and Goals 

Post-traumatic growth (PTG) describes perceptions of positive changes that arise after facing a challenging or life-altering event, such as a breast cancer diagnosis. Many women tell of being better able to appreciate life or of redefining their personal relationships as they go through treatment. A growing body of studies have explored PTG after a breast cancer diagnosis.

To bring clarity to these topics, researchers used data from a past study on how age impacts who becomes depressed after a breast cancer diagnosis to analyze how PTG changed during the first 2 years after diagnosis. The links between PTG and other personal factors also were explored.

Design

A total of 653 women newly diagnosed with stage I – III breast cancer were recruited to take part in the study. Participants were asked to complete four surveys at home during the 2-year follow-up period: one at the start of the study, for a baseline, and one at 6, 12, and 18 months after diagnosis. Of the women involved, 544 returned all four surveys to the researchers by mail.

Questions on the surveys assessed:

  • how much a woman felt her diagnosis led to positive changes in relating to others, appreciation of life, personal strength, spirituality, and seeing new life possibilities
  • how much support she felt she had from her family, friends, and communities
  • her sense of meaning, purpose, and peace in life and her sense of comfort and strength from her faith
  • how much she used active  (e.g., planning, positive reframing) and passive (e.g., denial) coping strategies
  • whether she was optimistic, or generally expected positive results
  • how much she felt breast cancer affected 13 areas of life, including work, romantic relationships and ability to be active

Results

The data showed a significant increase in PTG scores during the first year after diagnosis that remained stable during the second year. In addition:

  • women who were further from their date of diagnosis, had a college degree, and felt breast cancer more heavily impacted their lives showed  an increase in PTG
  • women who had greater positive changes in PTG also:
    • had increases in support from family, friends, and community
    • had increases in their understanding of life meaning/peace and in faith
    • increasingly engaged in active coping efforts
    • actively coping with the experience of breast cancer was highly associated with greater positive changes in PTG

What This Means for You

If newly diagnosed with breast cancer, you may find comfort in knowing some women experience positive changes from facing the challenges of the disease. In fact, that these changes are reported within one year of diagnosis means PTG may begin quickly and increase despite a sudden diagnosis and the start of treatment.

Know that these findings reflect the experiences of a large group of women, but not all women will experience post-traumatic growth. If you don’t, you do not need to worry – not experiencing PTG isn’t a sign that you aren’t coping well with breast cancer.

As you continue through your treatment, you may consider trying some active coping strategies as a way to deal with the emotional side of breast cancer. These active ways to cope may be a key part of dealing with diagnosis and treatment, the researchers suggest.

Emotional support, distracting yourself with activities or other thoughts, talking about your feelings with others, and turning to spirituality for support are all examples of these kinds of strategies. You can become involved in them through support groups, friends and family, and church and community groups in your area.

Talking with others about your experience may be a particularly good way to cope with the news. Women’s reports of PTG increased as social support increased, showing that communicating your fears and sharing your experience with others may help ease any stress or anxiety.

For more information on navigating the emotional side of breast cancer, read our Guide to Understanding Your Emotions.

Danhauer, S, Case, L, Tedeschi, R, Russell, G, Vishnevsky, T, Triplett, K, et al. Predictors of posttraumatic growth in women with breast cancer. Psycho-Oncology. 2013; doi: 10.1002/pon.3298 

Denver, CO  ·  September 13, 2014

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