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Study: Breast Cancer Help Can Harm

March 28, 2000

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ A study of support groups for women with breast cancer indicates they could actually do more harm than good in patients who already have strong emotional support from their families.

The study, conducted by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, looked at support groups in which women share their feelings and experiences.

After participating in an eight-week support group, women with good emotional support from their families reported getting sicker than those who attended no sessions. But women with low levels of family support reported doing better than women did not take part.

The researchers speculated that the women who had good support at home re-evaluated that support during the group sessions or discussed feelings they had not brought up before, thus creating family tension.

The study was published in the current issue of Health Psychology.

Joan Hermann, director of social work for Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia for 23 years, said the study validated a view among social workers that support groups may not be right for everyone.

``People are afraid of what they’re going to hear. They fear they may become more depressed. Newly diagnosed people don’t yet trust institutions,″ Hermann said.

The CMU-Pitt study was based on 230 patients in the early stages of breast cancer. All were invited to participate.

The study also found that women either were helped, or, at worst, not harmed by educational support groups focused on helping women manage specific problems such as anxiety or pain.

Some experts said they worry that the study could lead some patients to avoid a treatment that could actually be helpful.

``What I would hate to see happen is, if you’re happily married and your family is supportive, you get the message that a support group may be harmful,″ said David Cella, a professor of psychiatry sciences at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago.

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