Breast Cancer Survivor Study Improves Quality of Life

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer can be a life threatening disease and as a result, many victims have been known to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  A new study shows how expressive writing can improve the quality of life in Chinese speaking breast cancer survivors suffering from such disorders. According to other research, expressive writing has helped patients manage emotions, quiet obsessive thoughts and draw meaning from traumatic events. The demographics in these studies however, proved to be too limited for Qian Lu, director of the Culture and Health Center at the University of Houston.

Asian Americans are an understudied group according to Lu. Majority of breast cancer studies have often focused on non-Hispanic white demographics. The needs of Asian American survivors were not being addressed. The study revealed that cultural beliefs often affected the way individuals dealt with their trauma. Participants would swallow emotions and suffer quietly so as not to disrupt the lives and happiness of those around them. Lu also found a lack of mental health professionals trained with cultural and linguistic competency.

The team’s findings have been published by inHealth Psychology under the title, A Pilot Study of Expressive Writing Intervention Among Chinese-Speaking Breast Cancer Survivors. To come up with the study, researchers brainstormed on what could be the most interesting way to improve quality of life for survivors suffering from emotional distress due to breast cancer. They found that the basic idea of expressive writing was fairly simple and feasible for all participants. Lu said “What’s so interesting is that it has been proven as a scientific paradigm.”

Findings have shown a direct link between expressive writing and physical health. Lu found previous studies that had participants write about their emotional hardship for a maximum of 30 minutes over a course of three or four days. After this period, there was a notable improvement in the strength of their immune system. Lu’s study uses this basic knowledge to measure results over a longer period of time.

To conduct the research, participants first completed a standardized health assessment. They were then asked to write for 20 minutes each week for three weeks. Their health was assessed after three months and then again after six months. “Participants reported that they wrote down whatever they thought and felt and perceived the intervention to be appropriate and valuable,” said Lu.

Findings revealed that many of the survivors’ thoughts and feelings had been kept secret from those around them. The exercise allowed them to reveal and express their emotions in what they deemed an easy writing task. An important factor, in the study, happened to be the instructions on how to write. According to Lu, in other studies that used journaling, results were found to be inconclusive. The act of journaling required participants to keep a record of events, but it did not require participants to delve into their thoughts and emotions.

The expressive writing study produced conclusive findings, showing that the exercise could in fact improve the quality of life in breast cancer survivors. Health assessments after a three month period showed a decrease in intrusive thoughts, fatigue and PTSD. Health assessments after a six month period proved to be consistent. There was also an increase in positivity and quality of life.  By writing about emotions, fears and the benefits of diagnosis, participants experienced relief from their heavy psychological burdens.

By Kamille Dawkins


University of Houston