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The Art of Control: Study Analyzes Impact of Cancer Support Groups

May 16, 2013 By:
Lynne Blumberg, JE Feature
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Patti Zucca was feeling stressed when she agreed to participate in a study that compared the physiological effects of belonging to one of two differ­ent breast-cancer support groups at Thomas Jefferson Uni­versity. 

Although not Jewish, she had been diagnosed with the triple negative breast cancer linked to a BRCA1 gene mutation, an aggressive cancer highly associated with Ashkenazi Jews.

Zucca explained during a recent interview that when she began the group study in 2006, she was bald from chemotherapy treatments. At the end of one of the eight-week support groups, surgeons would remove one of her breasts and both of her ova­ries.

She hoped group support would ease her anxiety, but figured if it turned out to be a waste of time, she could drop out of the group. Placement into the different groups was random, but since she likes art, Zucca wanted to be in the group that used art therapy. She got her wish.

Zucca was one of the 18 breast cancer patients recruited between 2006 and 2010 for the Jefferson study, published in the December 2012 issue of Stress and Health.

All study participants had received a cancer diagnosis six months to three years prior to enrollment, were expected to live longer than six months, and possessed the stamina to attend eight weekly group meetings of 21⁄2 hours each in length. None had a mood, thought or psychotic disorder, and none had previously participated in a meditation or yoga program. Their ages ranged from 47 to 67.

Zucca’s group used Mindfulness-based Art Therapy (MBAT), which combines the standardized curriculum of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) with expressive art tasks.

Cancer patients have found both activities to be beneficial, said Dr. Daniel A. Monti, director of the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine and lead author of the study. Patients learn specific skills for navigating stress with the meditation practices in the MSBR curriculum. They express their stressors nonverbally with the art tasks. 

The second group, the education control group, had been offered by Jefferson for over a decade. During meetings, participants listen to experts and receive supportive materials about pertinent issues like diet, fitness and how to cope with cancer reoccurrence. 

To compare the physiological changes between the groups, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and the Symptom Check­list-90 Revised (SCL-90-R).

While the control group showed positive changes in anxiety levels, Monti said that the positive changes for the MBAT group were “much more robust.” He added that the differences between the two groups became more dramatic six months later, with the MBAT group handling better stressors.

Zucca’s practices attest to the benefits. As a member of the MBAT group, she said that the expressive art tasks helped her get in touch with her feelings. After the group, she used the meditative practices to cope with her surgery plus handle the five scary years when her aggressive form of cancer was likely to reoccur — if there would be a recurrence. 

On a side note, because she is sharing her story with Exponent readers, Zucca spoke of her plans to research her genealogical history. Her genetic testing explicitly labeled her as an Ashkenazi Jew  — even though she isn’t — so she wonders if she’ll discover a link in her family history. 

She laughed and said that since her cancer, “I’m on a journey to becoming a Jew.”

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