March 11, 2017 1:00 pm

Can emotional support help cancer patients in treatment and recovery?

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, about two in five Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime.

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It was the spring of 2013 and time for Apryl Allen’s annual mammogram screening. But as Allen was waiting for her name to be called, she noticed a new poster hanging in the clinic’s waiting room advising patients to ask their doctors about dense breast tissue.

Little did she know, that poster on the wall would change her life.

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“I figured all these years they’d tell you about it and if you have dense breast tissue, right?” Allen, 50, says. “I mean, if you’re going through the trouble of putting a sign up, wouldn’t they let you know? So I never thought of asking the question, or maybe I did – I don’t know – but it seemed inconsequential to me.”

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Allen’s turn was up and she went into the screening room. As she was being screened, however, the radiologist noticed a lymph node in Allen’s breast that didn’t look quite right, so Allen followed up with an ultrasound and then a biopsy.

A few weeks later, Allen – who lives in Phoenix, AZ – received a call while at a friend’s house.

“I almost didn’t answer it because I didn’t recognize the phone number,” Allen recalls. “But I did and that’s when I got the results… And lo and behold, it was [stage two breast] cancer. It turns out that we could not see the tumour on my breast and it was because I have dense breast tissue.”

Allen crouched down to the floor and felt the room spin.

“I felt like my world had turned upside down,” she says. “It was the last thing I was expecting in my life.”

Allen then called her husband, who was at their home getting ready for work. Once she told him, he joined his wife.

“When he walked in to the room, we just stared at each other,” Allen recalls, tearing up. “The feeling was that one of us was broken. We were both sharing in the devastation. So it was like, how do we fix this?”

If there was ever a time when Allen needed emotional support from her husband and family, it was now, she says.

Without it, Allen adds, she wouldn’t have been able to get through her treatment and recovery.

“I didn’t have many crashes and burns but it seems like when I did – boy, sometimes I’d really feel it, but my husband was always there to help me look on the bright side,” she says. “There were moments when I was so frustrated and there was even a time my husband and I got into an argument where candles were hurled. It sounds horrendous but this is the reality of the disease. It causes you to be in fear.”

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, about two in five Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime, and about one in four will die of cancer.

And once diagnosed, patients are often encouraged to find some form of emotional, social and/or community support that will help them navigate through their treatments and recovery.

And that support could be just as important as the medical treatments themselves.

The importance of support

Being diagnosed with a major illness such as cancer was overwhelming for Allen, as it is for a lot of cancer patients. Having that support system there, she says, helped her keep her focused and in good spirits.

One way her support system came in handy was at doctor’s appointments. Allen says that while she was being bombarded with information – a lot of which she didn’t understand – whomever was there to support her became a second set of ears that were sometimes more reliable than her own.

And while the practicality of support systems are beneficial, they may also help the patient’s recovery process.

Over the years, many studies have looked at whether or not morale and attitude can affect the outcome of a patient’s cancer situation.

And some found that it does.

A 2008 study out of Ohio State University found that psychological interventions, like in many community support groups, improves survival for breast cancer patients (in particular).

The study found that patients who regularly went to such intervention programs were found to have a reduced risk of breast cancer recurrence and death from the disease compared to patients who did not.

Researchers say the reason for this may be because patients stress levels were down, which may have helped to keep their stress hormone levels under control, as well as their tumor sizes.

Another study that same year by University College London found that stressful life experiences are related to poorer cancer survival rates and higher mortality, but not an increased incidence.

And in 2010, the Journal of Thoracic Oncology published a study exploring the impact of lung cancer patients’ outlook when it comes to their illness.

According to the study, patients with optimistic attitudes were more likely to live longer. Both men and women who were classified in the study as patients with optimistic attitudes survived an average of six months longer than those with negative outlooks.

The five-year survival rate for optimists were almost 33 per cent and only 21 per cent of pessimists, Science Daily reports.

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Jan MacVinnie, manager of the cancer information service at the Canadian Cancer Society, agrees that a positive outlook (which can be helped by having a strong support system) in patients is beneficial.

“I think it often helps people to appreciate that they’re not alone,” MacVinnie says. “[A support system] can help them feel a little bit more in control of what that experience is for them.”

Not having a support system and someone to turn to, however, can have a negative impact on patients. It may even impact one’s will to live, but that all depends on individual patients, MacVinnie says.

“I think that would be very individual,” she says. “I think a lot would depend on how that person copes and what their view of the world is and what their circumstances are in terms of their age and stage in life… But certainly if people are struggling, it doesn’t help that they don’t have support in their personal lives.”

Being the support system

So what do cancer patients want in a support system? Companionship mostly, MacVinnie says.

“I think often when people are diagnosed they look within and think, ‘Am I the only person going through this? Who should I talk to about this?’” MacVinnie explains. “[Having your family there] is very important. It often depends on the relationships that you currently have. Some people want to keep their family in the loop with everything but then you have some people who don’t want to tell the world what they’re going through, and often only rely on a very few close people.”

And because each patient and their experience is different, MacVinnie says the best way support systems can know what to do is to just outright ask the patient.

Sometimes, MacVinnie says, being present may just be enough.

“Just keep contact and be respectful of what the patient wants,” she says. “There is no one way to support someone. Some people may want company and other might not want it non-stop.”

MacVinnie adds, “When you are going through difficult times and experiencing a range of emotions, [patients] often don’t know they’re experiencing those emotions. I think doing something together is more powerful than doing something just completely on your own… And sometimes you do need help.”

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