Advanced breast cancer: Does group therapy help?

Photo of two women talking (Peter Mooy / iStock / Thinkstock)

Group therapy can temporarily improve the emotional wellbeing of women with advanced breast cancer. Research suggests that such programs increase the chances of survival during the first year.

In some women, breast cancer continues to spread or is at an advanced stage by the time it is discovered. If the tumor has spread and formed metastases in other parts of the body, it is usually no longer possible to completely remove the cancer tissue. Then the aim of therapy is to prolong their life, relieve pain, stabilize their overall health and help them maintain a good quality of life.

It is anything but easy to come to terms with a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, deal with fears about the future and face existential questions about life and death. Cancer treatment itself can also be difficult and stressful, both physically and emotionally.

Psychological and social support is available in different forms: As well as one-to-one individual counseling, psychological therapy and patient education, there is also group therapy offered by doctors or psychotherapists. It is estimated that less than 10 out of 100 women with cancer participate in group therapy. Some women prefer self-help groups, where women with breast cancer can share experiences and support each other.

Research on the effectiveness of group therapy

Researchers at the University of Cardiff (Wales) looked at how women with advanced breast cancer felt after participating in group therapy based on psychological approaches. They analyzed ten studies involving about 1,400 participants. These groups were led by a doctor, psychotherapist or another professional, so they were not self-help groups.

The goal of these programs was to help women cope better with the disease, and to offer social support. Some of the programs lasted just a few weeks or months, while others lasted about one year. Four of the groups mainly offered social support. Three of the groups included cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The women in the remaining three groups received support from specially trained nurses or a telephone counseling service.

Group therapy can temporarily improve wellbeing

The researchers concluded that participating in group therapy can improve the wellbeing and self-esteem of women with advanced breast cancer. But this effect wore off just a few months after therapy. The trials also suggest that the women who participated in group therapy experienced less pain, and that group therapy can initially increase chances of survival:

  • About 78 out of 100 women who had participated in group therapy were still alive one year later.
  • About 71 out of 100 women who had not participated in group therapy were still alive one year later.

But there was no difference between the two groups in the long term. After five years the number of women who had died was about the same in both groups.

Some women might benefit more from group therapy, and others might feel worse afterwards. More research is needed to find out whether group therapy has any impact on the woman's relationship with her partner, family and doctors. It is also not known how effective group therapy is at different stages of breast cancer.