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 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.

Mustafa M, Carson-Stevens A, Gillespie D, Edwards AG. Psychological interventions for women with metastatic breast cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2013; (6): CD004253.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

Comment on this page

What would you like to share with us?

We welcome any feedback and ideas. We will review, but not publish, your ratings and comments. Your information will of course be treated confidentially. Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required fields.

Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Updated on April 7, 2016
Next planned update: 2021

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

How we keep you informed

Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter or newsfeed. You can find all of our films online on YouTube.