Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer among women throughout the world. This life-changing diagnosis can lead to significant changes both emotionally and physically. Women who are diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, whether through radiation and chemotherapy or through mastectomy, must deal with radical changes to their physical appearance and health. The emotional toll of experiencing these types of changes can be intense. After treatment, women are often hypersensitive to the recurrence of breast cancer and can become worried and fearful that that the cancer will return. In such stressful times, it is imperative that women be able to rely on the support of friends and family members. Having someone to discuss fears and concerns with provides these women the opportunity to divulge their apprehensions and receive unbiased feedback. Women who do not have adequate social support may internalize their fears and develop increased levels of anxiety and depression relating to their illness.
Positive social support increases personal well-being in nearly every context. However, when emotional needs are elevated, the importance of positive social support is also elevated. Shannon L. Jones of the Department of Psychology at the University of Regina in Canada sought to determine how social support affected the well-being of women after a diagnosis of breast cancer. She looked specifically at how perceived levels of supportive or unsupportive social connections influenced depression, anxiety, and other cancer-related health issues in 131 women who had received a breast cancer diagnosis during the last 10 years.
Jones analyzed data gathered from internet surveys completed by the women and found that the biggest predictor of increased health anxiety was unsupportive or negative social connections. In particular, the women reported that they believed their fears and concerns were being dismissed or discounted when their social network gave them negative feedback. This directly increased the level of fear the women felt and caused them to become more preoccupied with their bodies. In contrast, women who reported high levels of perceived support had low levels of depression and health anxiety. This finding suggests that these women benefited from being able to disclose their concerns and receive validation from others. Jones added, “The results underscore the importance of social support to health anxiety and highlight a need to assess social factors when assessing and treating health anxiety in this population.”
Jones, S. L., Hadjistavropoulos, H. D., Sherry, S. B. (2012). Health anxiety in women with early-stage breast cancer: What is the relationship to social support? Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 44.2, 108-116.
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