Looking for C.U.R.E.

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size
Home Support Coping Supportive Expressive Group Therapy for Patients with Breast Cancer

Supportive Expressive Group Therapy for Patients with Breast Cancer

E-mail Print
Download this file (Oncology article (1)-Farah Ali.pdf)PDF

Breast cancer impacts not only the physical body, but it also has the tendency to impact emotional well-being.Although not an exhaustive list by any means, some common feelings associated with a diagnosis of breast cancer are anxiety, depression, anger, denial, and fear. Some of these mental health symptoms are a result of knowing about the diagnosis and others may be through the result of living with a potentially painful disease. Although people react to and cope with breast cancer in a multitude of ways, one way individuals may seek comfort is through mental health treatment. This article discusses the benefits of expressive group therapy in particular.

One benefit of engaging in supportive group therapies is that members can teach each other coping strategies by sharing ideas that have been beneficial to them in dealing with breast cancer. Group members can also find an understanding audience amongst one another with people who are going through a similar experience. Even the most supportive family members may have difficulty truly understanding the patient’s experiences, and may expect patients to behave in a way that is incongruent with their feelings. Group therapy provides a setting for quick self-disclosure and bonding opportunities which can serve to reduce confusion and fear.

Supportive expressive group therapy (sometimes also known as SET) has been found to reduce many psychological symptoms of cancer, including mood disturbance, symptoms of trauma, emotional ups-and-downs, maladaptive coping, and in some cases, it can also reduce physical pain. SET provides a supportive environment, structured by one or two mental health professionals, in which patients are encouraged to discuss their feelings, strengthen their bonds with other group members and loved ones, and find enhanced meaning in their lives. The mental health professional(s) take the role of enhancing social bonds among group members, encouraging emotional expression, and facilitating the discussion so it is more emotionally expressive rather than lecture or information-based. Some topics raised in groups are restructuring life priorities, fear of death (one’s own and other group members), improving communication with loved ones and physicians, and discussing how one has changed, both emotionally and physically.

It is important to note and remember that groups which focus on expressing emotions and talking about difficult topics can initially increase a patient’s anxiety, depression, and fear. This is because discussing difficult topics, such as the fear of being ill, dying, and the uncertainty of one’s future, can be uncomfortable and uneasy. However, patients are encouraged to stick with therapy and continue to attend groups because talking about uncomfortable topics provides patients to practice tolerating negative feelings, a skills which is helpful not only during an illness, but in a variety of difficult circumstances. And while the therapists leading the group should always be gentle and supportive, group members should not be surprised if the therapist(s) deliberately encourage members to talk about their feelings of anger, sadness, and fear. While these topics are definitely emotionally-charged and can raise a person’s anxiety and fear, again, it is believed that group members and therapists help one another process through scary feelings and feel some relief, even if that relief is not immediate.

Even though research studies have found expressive group therapy to be effective in helping individuals with breast cancer manage negative emotions, it is not a blanket treatment for everyone. Some people may not benefit from a group setting or expressing their feelings amongst people who they do not initially know. The essential thing to keep in mind is that people deal with situations in varying ways, and there are multiple, effective ways to seek comfort and support.

Farah Ali, Psy.D.



[1] Butler, L. D., Koopman, C., Neri, E., Giese-Davis, J., Palesh, O., Thorne-Yocam, K. A., Dimiceli, S., Chen, X., Fobair, P., Kraemer, H. C., Spiegel, D. (2009). Effects of supportive-expressive group therapy on pain in women with metastatic breast cancer. Health Psychology28(5), 579-587.

[2] Classen, C., Abramson, S., Angell, K., Atkinson, A., Desch, A., & Vinciguerra, C. (1997).  Effectiveness of a training program for leading supportive-expressive breast cancer groups. Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research6, 211–218.

[3] Academic JournalGiese-Davis, J., Koopman, C., Butler, L. D.; Classen, C., Cordova, M., Fobair, P., Benson, J.,  Kraemer, H. C.; Spiegel, D. (2002). Change in emotion-regulation strategy for women with metastatic breast cancer following supportive-expressive group therapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology70(4), 916-925.