Breast Cancer: A Biospychosocial Approach

Ankit Shakya

Cancer is one of the most prevalent chronic medical diseases in the United States. In women, breast cancer is the most prevalent type of cancer with 210,203 women diagnosed with this cancer in 2008 (U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group, 2008).

When we hear the word “cancer”, we probably think of it exclusively as a medical condition… and of course, it is a medical illness! The diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer involves invasive and non invasive medical treatment that implies changes in biological functioning and probably changes in the body as well.

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However, the diagnosis of breast cancer is more than a medical condition. Receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer and medical treatment has an impact on the patient’s psychological performance as well as on the social system of the person diagnosed with this condition.

Researchers have found strong evidence on the incidence of psychological symptoms in people who have received diagnosis and medical treatment for breast cancer.

The more prevalent mental health diagnoses among breast cancer patients are depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (Gandubert et al., 2009). Other studies suggest that chemotherapy and radiotherapy can affect mental abilities such as memory, executive functions and attention span (Jim et al., 2009).

Breast cancer affects predominantly women, therefore depending on the cultural background of the woman who is diagnosed, consequences of treatment may include changes in self-esteem, self-image and the perception of the role of a woman (Prates et al., 2012).

However, cancer does not affect only the person diagnosed. It also has an impact on family, friends, work setting and the community of women diagnosed with breast cancer.

It is not uncommon for family members and friends of a patient with cancer to experience symptoms of depression, anxiety and burnout (Lins & Deheinzelin, 2009). Depending on the stage of cancer and the response to the medical treatment, these symptoms can become worse among persons involved in the patient’s support system.

As we can appreciate, breast cancer involves and affects the biological, psychological and social aspects of the woman diagnosed. Therefore, it is important that the patient diagnosed with this medical condition receives holistic treatment that addresses all of the above-mentioned components.

This means that the patient’s biological, psychological and social needs should to be treated within a multidisciplinary team in order to address as many issues as possible.

What can be the role of a psychologist during and after the diagnosis and treatment for patients with breast cancer?

Psychologists can work hand-in-hand with physicians to provide psychoeducation to the patient about the etiology, prognosis and treatments for cancer. These interventions can help to reduce patient’s anxiety and fears before and during the medical treatment.

Psychologists can integrate the patient’s family into psychological treatment to provide psycho-education, emphasize the importance of social support during this process and explore the family perceptions, expectations and fears about cancer and its treatment. Some family members may require a referral for individual therapy.

Mental health practitioners can also provide several types of psychological interventions to explore and modify misconceptions about cancer, as well as provide psychological and emotional support during medical treatment.

Mental health specialists also provide groups for patients with breast cancer. Groups can help the patient feel understood and supported by people with the same medical condition, as well as learn adjustment techniques from peers.


Ankit Shakya
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