Positive psychology and breast cancer

A study by Malaga University shows that having hope and managing emotions well are key to patients' psychological wellbeing

Her life has never been very easy. Her mother and grandmother died of cancer, her father had diabetes, she went through a divorce and brought up her two children in Spain after leaving her native Argentina. She learned from all that, and, most importantly, not to look the other way when problems occur but to face up to them and do whatever has to be done to put an end to them.

A year ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer after a self-examination in the shower set off all the alarms. She sensed something ominous.

"The worst cancer is the one that isn't diagnosed," says Elvira Sánchez, who after the initial shock decided to take the bull by the horns. "At that moment your whole approach to life changes. When the doctor confirmed that it was cancer, but that there was a solution, I decided to fight it," she says.

Elvira doesn't deny that it is hard (she finished her treatment two months ago and is having regular check-ups) and that there are days when she feels low, but what worked for her was "focusing on what was necessary" to carry on enjoying life.

She has managed to take on board the fact that being ill doesn't have to mean grief, sadness or depression. In her case, she focused on hope, positivity and her personal wellbeing and that of her family. To do so, she grabbed hold of some "lifelines" to prevent her sinking emotionally: cycle rides, adopting a dog, her faith, which made her stronger, the unconditional support from her children, who always respected the schedules that Elvira set, and laughter in the company of her friends.

Her example and her lesson in life have formed part of the study 'Scale of satisfaction with life in breast cancer patients: psychometric characteristics', carried out by Malaga University.

Positive emotions

The team that developed this project started with the thesis: can you suffer from breast cancer and be happy? After a year and a half of work, they have concluded that you can. But how is it possible to face up to the illness with this type of attitude?

"Women with this type of cancer tend to experience positive emotions, they expect good results in life and they are hopeful. They find a purpose in it and they also regulate their own emotions well," says María Victoria Cerezo, a lecturer in Social Psychology at the university. She is the lead author in this work, which has been published in the International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology.

Working with her have been María José Blanca and Rafael Alarcón, who are lecturers in the department of Psychobiology and Methodology of Behavioural Sciences at Malaga university, and researcher Lorena Soria-Reyes, who is also a psychologist with ASAMMA, the association to support women who have breast surgery in Malaga, which collaborated with the study.

A glass half full

Like other experiences in life, the way of handling a situation depends on the person, their experiences and their social and family environment. All these determine how they deal with a setback at any given moment in their lives.

"Objectively, two people can be in exactly the same situation but each of them will interpret it in a different way, depending on a series of variables (self-esteem, emotional wellbeing, resilience, emotional intelligence and optimism), which need to be worked on from childhood. They see a glass as being half-full or half-empty as a result of their previous life experiences," explains Cerezo.

To carry out this project, which was developed within the line of research 'Positive psychology and breast cancer' of the university group 'Analysis of data in psychology', the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS), an international research instrument which measures life satisfaction and cognitive wellbeing, was used. It was created in 1985 and the Spanish version is from 2013.

This 'SWLS' reference determines that 24.1 is the average measure of satisfaction with life in the general population and 27.1 in cancer patients. However, the figure drops slightly in the case of women with breast cancer, where the measurement is 22.14.

María Victoria Cerezo points out that even so, it is a good result and that this difference is largely due to the fact that breast cancer is different from other cancers because it has a specific impact on an external and visible part of the body, which has cultural and sexual connotations among others.

In total 222 women from the ASAMMA association were analysed, of whom almost half had recently been diagnosed and were therefore having treatment, and the remainder - 50.5 per cent - were cancer survivors.