Breast cancer survivors facing the disease a second time are more likely to live longer if they get psychological counseling.
The new study builds on previous research into the physical benefits for cancer patients who get counseling as well as medical care.
Ohio State University researcher Barbara Andersen began with a group of more than 200 women who'd been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Patients were randomly assigned to get counseling or not. In research published two years ago, Anderson reported that the patients who got counseling were less likely to have a recurrence of the cancer years later.
Now, a follow-up study in the journal Clinical Cancer Research indicates that the women who got counseling also had a lower risk of death if the breast cancer came back.
Andersen says the counseling, "had a large component for stress reduction, teaching patients how to relax. But it also had elements to help them cope with their cancer treatments, change their health behaviors such as their diet, or exercise more frequently. And many strategies to help them just cope more effectively and have an enhanced quality of life."
Andersen says the counseling produced more than psychological benefits for the women.
"They also had reduced symptoms from chemotherapy, improved sleep, and eventually improved disease outcomes."
Counseling is labor intensive, so it may not be cheap. But compared to the cost of surgery, chemotherapy, and other medical treatments for cancer, it can be a good value.
Anderson is looking at that cost effectiveness in some of her current research. Meanwhile, American cancer patients are not routinely getting the sort of psychological counseling given the breast cancer patients in this study.
"No, and I think that's what's unfortunate," says Anderson. "Certainly with the escalating health care costs, other additional services for patients are being squeezed, if you will."
Psychologist Barbara Andersen of Ohio State University says the results of this study can not be automatically extended to patients with different cancers or other serious diseases.
But she says it does suggest the importance of psychological services in patient care, not just for mental health but perhaps for the physical health of the patient as well.