Department of Psychology

Psychology Professor Evaluates Programs Aimed at Improving Quality of Life in Breast Cancer Patients and Combat Veterans

Dr. Elizabeth Vella, Assistant Professor of Psychology, manages a laboratory on USM’s Portland campus that is dedicated to studying cardiovascular reactivity to and recovery from lab-induced stress. Recently, she became involved in two projects outside of the laboratory in which she is evaluating alternative modes of stress reduction among breast cancer patients and combat vets. The findings produced from her program evaluations have important implications for improving quality of life and reducing perceptual stress among these two groups.

Although advances in detection and treatment have considerably reduced breast cancer mortality rates relative to other forms of cancer among women, a diagnosis of breast cancer is a profound stressor, resulting in significant increases in distress, marital strain, feelings of uncertainty, and difficulty in illness adjustment. Research has found that overall quality of life among breast cancer patients can be predicted through psychological factors such as optimism and measures of psychosocial wellness. These findings suggest that psychosocial intervention can be an effective means of improving the quality of life of breast cancer patients.

One unique approach to psychosocial intervention is being undertaken at the F. Holland Day House, located on the coast of Maine, established as a retreat center for breast cancer patients by Dr. Matt Budd, a retired gastroenterologist. The women at the center take part in yoga and meditation in the mornings and spend afternoons involved in photographic art therapy, reflective journal writing, and group therapy. Dr. Vella has found that many of the women “say that their fear, resentment, depression and anxiety have diminished and they are committed to a new path of learning.” This pilot study suggests that breast cancer patients may benefit from participation in a structured group therapy process aimed at expanding conscious awareness of personal strain surrounding the cancer experience in a retreat setting. The findings pertaining to this research were published in a recent edition of Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice.

Dr. Vella is also evaluating the success of an organization called Rivers of Recovery, whose mission is to take combat veterans on outdoor recreation therapy trips to teach them fly fishing. Dr. Vella was invited to join the trips and study the veterans’ psychological and physiological reactions to their new challenges.

“My data suggests that relaxing outdoor activities do indeed decrease anxiety, increase sleep quality, and significantly reduce the sense of disorientation many combat veterans experience on the battlefield and continue to experience long afterwards,” she says. “Veterans who have come in contact with serious trauma return home to a life that no longer seems to make sense,” she adds. “There is a distancing effect that they struggle to conquer. We’ve witnessed salubrious effects when they are introduced to such a strong social support system in the outdoors. They learn new skills in a quiet, pristine environment, and the activities help them experience peace and re-develop their powers of concentration.”

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