“You have cancer.” Once the initial shock wears off, patients deal with a barrage of emotions (fear, uncertainty, denial, anger); concerns (How will my life change now? What will happen to my family?); and questions (How long will I live? What’s my best treatment option?). It stands to reason that some sort of emotional support might help during this trying time. But could psychotherapy do even more than that—could it actually improve long-term survival?

In a study published in the July 1, 2007 Journal of Clinical Oncology , researchers compared long-term survival in patients with gastrointestinal cancer who did and did not receive psychotherapy in addition to standard care. They found that patients who received psychotherapy were significantly more likely to remain alive ten years after their cancer diagnosis than patients who did not receive psychotherapy.

About the Study

The researchers enrolled 271 men and women who had been diagnosed with cancer of the ]]>esophagus]]> , ]]>stomach]]> , ]]>liver]]> / ]]>gallbladder]]> , ]]>pancreas]]> , or ]]>colon/rectum]]> . Half of the patients had surgery to remove the cancer and then routine care during their hospital stay. The other half also had surgery and routine care, but in addition, they participated in one-on-one sessions with a psychotherapist before and after surgery. The goal of the psychotherapy was to foster a fighting spirit in the patients and to discourage hopelessness and helplessness. The researchers tracked patient survival for ten years following surgery.

At ten years, 29 of 136 patients who received psychotherapy were still alive, compared to 13 of 135 patients who received standard care. This was a significant difference. The difference remained significant even after researchers took the site of the tumor, the stage of the cancer, and other indications of disease severity after surgery into consideration.

How Does This Affect You?

This study suggests that psychotherapy received at the time of surgical treatment for cancer may improve long-term survival. The reasons for this observation remain unclear, especially since the researchers did not document whether or not patients continued in psychotherapy. It is also unknown whether or not this effect applies to other non-gastrointestinal cancers.

When you are diagnosed with a gastrointestinal (or any) cancer, your world can change in an instant. You’re suddenly forced to make decisions about treatment, to deal with your emotions and those of your loved ones, and to consider that your future may not be what you had planned. Psychotherapy may not only provide the support you need to adjust to this major life event, it may actually help you survive your cancer diagnosis.