A breast cancer diagnosis can be a life-shattering event that leaves patients feeling helpless and alone. Adopting a new way of life between surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy can make fighting cancer feel like a never-ending battle. Now, researchers at Penn State University suggest women with strong social circles who are being treated for breast cancer have a higher survival rate than others.
"When they feel supported, they can face any challenge that comes forth," said Lynn Fantom, a clinical nurse coordinator at Penn State Breast Center, in a statement.
Every year, more than 246,000 women in the U.S. learn they have breast cancer. Often, the diagnosis comes as a devastating surprise since many don't have family history of breast cancer. Feelings of distress, fatigue, and overall worry about their symptoms, treatment, and mortality start to surface as they begin to undergo treatment, according to the American Psychological Association.
Nichole Cook, a breast imaging nurse coordinator at Penn State Breast Center, believes a support group could offer solace for women to connect with others who are going through the same thing. Patients could talk, complain, share their experiences, and provide information and a hug.
"I think just having that circle of people who understand and are dealing with the same issues is beneficial," Cook said in the statement.
Support groups come in a variety of formats, including in person, on the Internet, or by telephone. They may be led by professional facilitators — such as a nurse, social worker or psychologist — or by group members, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some groups are educational and structured. For example, the group leader may invite a doctor, psychologist, nurse or social worker to talk about a topic related to the group's needs. Other support groups emphasize emotional support and shared experiences.
The researchers emphasize social connections can also go beyond support groups, including a significant other, friend or family member. Many cancer patients will report feeling chronic fatigue during and post-treatment, which can make it difficult to do daily tasks. Fantom expressed: When you're feeling lousy, you don't want to worry about how you're going to make lunch for yourself or take out the dog," said Fantom.
Both Fantom and Cook see many breast cancer patients who don't have anyone to take them to and from appointments, or sit next to them as they receive test results. They refer women to both community and online resources, but also recommend journaling as a good way to express their bottled feelings.
"When they feel supported, they can face any challenge that comes forth," Fantom said.
Similarly, a 2016 study found women with abundant social ties had significantly lower breast cancer death rates and disease recurrence as compared to socially isolated women. Those with few ties were 43 percent more likely to have a recurrence of breast cancer; 64 percent more likely to die from breast cancer; and 69 percent more likely to die from any cause.
Aside from social groups, diet and exercise have been touted for improving survival odds for breast cancer patients. There are certain foods, and other activities, like exercise, that women can include in their daily lives to stay fit and healthy.
A 2012 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found the consumption of isoflavones, commonly found in soybeans, among 9,500 breast cancer survivors, reduced the risk of recurrence. Women have been discouraged from eating soy because it was believed components of soy have estrogen-like properties that influence the growth of breast cancer cells. However, research has shown it's likely not a risk, and may be beneficial.
Regular exercise has been linked to a lower risk of breast cancer-specific death in postmenopausal women. The Women's Health Initiative study found women engaging in nine or more metabolic equivalent (MET) hours per week of physical activity, or about three hours of fast walking per week, had a 39 percent lower risk than inactive women. High levels of physical activity may improve survival in postmenopausal women with breast cancer, even among those reporting low physical activity prior to diagnosis.
Singing for just an hour can boost a cancer patient's immune system. A study conducted by the Tenovus Cancer Care and the Royal College of Music in London found singing for an hour was associated with significant reductions in stress hormones, such as cortisol, and increases in quantities of cytokines, which are proteins of the immune system. In other words, it can boost the body's ability to fight serious illness.
A breast cancer patient who took part in the study, said: "The choir is a family, simple as that. Having cancer and losing someone [her daughter] to cancer can be very isolating. With the choir, you can share experiences openly and that is hugely important."
Social interactions, following a healthy diet, and exercising can vastly improve the physical and mental well-being of patients, boosting their odds of survival.