Patient Stress Level Influences Best Type of Couples' Therapy for Patients With Breast Cancer and Their Partners

Distressed patients with breast cancer benefit most from a couple-focused supportive group therapy, while less distressed patients benefit more from a structured, skills-based, couples-focused group therapy.1

Women with early stage breast cancer face numerous emotional concerns. Distress can occur as the cancer impacts a patient's daily life, such as nausea, hair loss, and weight gain, along with impacting career, social life, household and family responsibilities, and relationships. Patients often turn to a spouse or significant other to manage this stressful experience.

“In this new study, we wanted to compare [a 6-session, couple-focused, skills-oriented group intervention] to traditional support group therapy in which couples attend the group session together and both receive emotional support and validation from group members,” explained Sharon Manne, PhD, Rutgers Cancer Institute Associate Director for Cancer Prevention, Control and Population Science and a professor of medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, New Brunswick, New Jersey, and lead author of the study.

For the study, 302 women with early stage breast cancer and their significant others (including 2 female spouses) were recruited from the outpatient clinics of 3 comprehensive cancer centers in the Northeastern United States, as well as community hospital oncology practices. Half of the patients were assigned to traditional support group therapy sessions and the other half was assigned to the couple-focused, enhanced skill-based intervention.

“We found that depression, anxiety, and cancer distress declined and well-being improved for couples enrolled in both interventions; that is, neither treatment was superior to the other,” said Manne. “Each group intervention was more effective for patients depending on their personal and relationship characteristics.”

Manne explained that patients with high levels of cancer-related stress prior to starting the intervention did better at the 1-year follow-up regarding stress, depression, and anxiety if they were in the traditional couples' support group, while those with low cancer-related stress did better at 1 year if they were in the couple-focused, enhanced skill-based couples' group intervention.


1. Manne SL, Siegel SD, Heckman CJ, et al. A randomized clinical trial of a supportive versus a skill-based couple-focused group intervention for breast cancer patients [published online May 26, 2016]. J Consult Clin Psychol. Accessed June 13, 2016.

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