Research Spotlight: Study will look at stress in young women with aggressive breast cancer

Stock photo of breast cancer survivorsWhen an aggressive form of breast cancer strikes a young woman, what kind of stress, anxiety and other psychological and social challenges does she face?

That question hasn’t been answered in the published psychological cancer literature, but a new pilot study just launched is gathering data to change that, according to SMU psychologist Georita M. Frierson.

The two-year study will survey up to 60 women recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer that typically strikes younger women under 40, mostly African-American or Hispanic, or those who test positive for a mutation of the human gene that suppresses tumors, BRCA1.

The study is probing patients’ stress, anxiety and concerns about the psychological and social hurdles they face, said Frierson, principal investigator. SMU is collaborating on the Triple Negative study with the UT-Southwestern Simmons Cancer Center, a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.

Triple Negative patients face far different challenges than women with traditional hormonal-type breast cancer, whose psychological and social challenges have been widely examined in the published psychological cancer literature, Frierson said. Traditional hormonal-type patients are typically over age 50, in a later career phase, raising their families, and probably have peers who may be struggling with a chronic illness.

In contrast, a Triple Negative patient is young, maybe mid-career, may not have started a family, and her peers are largely healthy and active. Because Triple Negative is a very aggressive cancer, Triple Negative patients can have lower survival rates and higher recurrence rates, and the medical treatment is different from hormonal-type cancer, Frierson said. For example, while chemotherapy can be an effective treatment for the Triple Negative patient, it can lead to short-term menopause, which may or may not be reversible, she said.

The subtype is called Triple Negative because it tests negative for all three of the hormone receptors that fuel many types of breast cancer: estrogen, progesterone and human epidermal receptor 2. Some traditional breast cancer hormonal treatment therapy drugs, such as Tamoxifen, aren’t effective against Triple Negative Breast Cancer.

Health care providers, social workers and others can use the study data to develop programs to reduce and manage stressors in the lives of Triple Negative patients, Frierson said.

“We want to fill a gap that needs to be addressed,” she said. “The information from this pilot can help us develop programs and support groups to ease the burden on Triple Negative survivors. When we talk about breast cancer, many people think about the woman in her 50s. But these are young cancer survivors. Really understanding those differences is important.”

Written by Margaret Allen

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