COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A behavioral program designed to help breast cancer patients cope with their disease has also produced tangible benefits, a new study has shown.

Researchers found that patients who participated in this intensive, 18-week intervention program had better immune function than patients who didn't participate.

The program -- which included training in relaxation, stress reduction, and coping strategies -- led to steadily increasing levels of natural killers cells in patients. Those patients who didn't participate showed no change in NK cell levels.

NK cells are capable of detecting and killing cancer cells and are one vital weapon making up the immune system.

"These findings are obviously very encouraging and remarkable," said Barbara Andersen, leader of the study and a professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

"To our knowledge, this is the first finding of a significant enhancement in immune outcomes for cancer patients following a psychological and behavioral intervention."

Andersen is a member of Ohio State's new Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research and the university's Comprehensive Cancer Center. She presented her findings March 16 in Washington, D.C. at the International Congress of Behavioral Medicine, hosted by the Society of Behavioral Medicine.

The ongoing study has so far included 80 women of a projected 200 total. All of the women have Stage II or Stage III breast cancer. "This group was specifically selected because of the difficult struggle that lay before them," Andersen said. "It is predicted that about half of them will die within five years."

All of the women in the study were tested for immune function within days of surgery for their cancer and before beginning any other therapy. Additional therapies may include radiotherapy and some form of hormonal- or chemo- therapy.

Early results -- before the intervention program began --showed that patients who felt high levels of stress concerning their diagnosis and treatment had lower levels of NK cells than did women who reported less stress.

As a result, the behavioral program was designed to help reduce stress and improve quality of life, Andersen said. Patients received training in progressive muscle relaxation, positive coping strategies, and use of social support. Patients also received counseling about healthy diets and began a program of regular, moderate exercise. They learned about disease treatments and assertive communication skills for dealing with health care providers.

The intervention program produced positive changes in the lives of patients, Andersen said. Participants showed a decline in stress, improved quality of life and better health behaviors.

"Our early results suggest that these positive changes as a result of the intervention program are having immune enhancing effects," Andersen said.

"The program seems to be stopping decline in the immune function during a time when people are dealing with a lot of stress, recovering from surgery and dealing with other cancer therapies. It's a very encouraging finding."

The ultimate goal is to extend survival of these patients, she said. "We're continuing our research to see if this is possible."

Contact: Barbara Andersen, (614) 292-4236

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457

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