Catching your breath online after breast cancer

Breath program breast cancer

Helping breast cancer survivors to master emotional recovery

The period after finishing cancer treatment tends to be a rough one. The idea for developing an online self-management program was born in clinical practice – based on experiences of women who just finished breast cancer treatment. These women were referred to the department of Medical Psychology with questions about how to cope with challenges they faced after the end of medical treatment. Challenges they did not feel prepared for and that disturbed their sense of balance.

The majority of these early breast cancer survivors were not in need of intensive treatment of a psychologist or psychiatrist, as their issues were not severe enough. They were more in need of information on coping with emotional recovery, fear of the return of breast cancer, difficulties going back to work or self-image. Medical psychologists have a lot of expertise about how to adjust to life after cancer, but this information was only available for a small group of patients.

“Then all the chemo’s are finished […] and you have to do it on your own again.”

(Participant BREATH study)

Breath program breast cancerThe added value of eHealth

The challenge was to find an easy-accessible and cost-effective solution to serve the information and support needs of all women after breast cancer. Since a great amount of breast cancer survivors goes online to seek breast cancer-related information, eHealth seemed like a logical medium to serve this growing group of women. This is where eHealth crossed their path. eHealth held many possibilities for accessible information-sharing about emotional recovery. This led to the development of the BREAst cancer ehealTH (BREATH) program, with the financial support of breast cancer organisation ‘Pink Ribbon – the Netherlands’.

Empowering patients

The online self-management program, spread out over 16 weeks, subsequently was developed with the help of patients, researchers, nurses and oncologists. It aims at reducing distress and increasing empowerment after breast cancer. The information and exercises are based on evidence-based treatment techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy. Besides information, the program (provides tips about work and social life) contains peer-modelling videos, self-tests and assignments.

“When finishing treatment, family and friends tend to be relieved: the cancer is gone which means she can go back to normal. The patient however for the first time has time to look back at what actually happened to her.”

(Sanne van den Berg, PhD/Research Coordinator Karify)

A faster recovery journey

Van den Berg started a research trial to examine the effectiveness of the eHealth program, in collaboration with six hospitals. The multicenter randomised controlled trial showed that after four months, participants who had access to the BREATH program experienced significant less distress than the group who only received regular care. This shows that using BREATH made faster recovery possible.

“What I think is really good about the BREATH program, is that it reasons from your own strengths and how to use those for recovery.”

(Participant BREATH study)