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Group Therapy Does Not Extend Life of Cancer Patients

A study has found that women with breast cancer who take part in group psychotherapy do not live longer than those who do not -- contrary to a much-publicized study from 18 years ago. But the author of the new study says support groups can still help breast cancer patients have a better quality of life. VOA's Leta Hong Fincher has more.

Jan Kuba discovered she had breast cancer last year. She has undergone chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

She says her cancer support group near Chicago, Illinois has helped her cope with her illness.

"And my hair's growing back," she says in a group meeting.

Support groups like this blossomed after the release of a study in 1989 by Dr. David Spiegel of Stanford University Medical School. It found that women with metastatic breast cancer who took part in group psychotherapy lived an average of 18 months longer than those without group support.

Other studies did not duplicate his findings. Recently, Spiegel repeated his original study and found different results: group therapy apparently has little impact on a patient's life span.

"The take-home message from this study is that certainly group therapy helps people live better. It does not provide significant evidence that it helps them live longer," says the doctor.

Some health experts say the new study, published in the journal Cancer, casts doubt on the idea that patients can live longer by adopting a positive attitude.

Dr. Jimmie Holland is a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. "I've had one patient who tells me that, ‘If one more person tells me to be positive I'm going to punch them in the nose. I've had enough of this positive business. I don't feel good today. Enough already’."

Doctors say the best way to defeat breast cancer is to detect it early with a mammogram every year or two. Dr. David Dershaw, also of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, says, "Women who undergo annual screening with mammography are up to 60 percent less likely to die of breast cancer than those who do not."

But even if group therapy does not extend a patient's life, the new study does show that support groups have a positive effect on a patient's mood and pain.

Jan Kuba says that is good enough for her. "I'm not in the support group to increase my life. I have no way of knowing how long my life will be. The only thing I know is it gave me hope.”

Dr. Spiegel says that when patients share their anxieties and listen to the problems of others, they feel better about themselves.