Characterizing Character Growth Following Breast Cancer Diagnosis


Post-traumatic growth is positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event. Breast cancer diagnosis and treatment is indeed a major life and existential crisis for the vast majority of women. Its treatment is a protracted potent stressor for the patient and her family as “primary” treatment typically lasts for about a year, encompassing surgery and adjuvant therapies such as anti-hormonal medications, chemotherapy and/or radiation. Perhaps not surprisingly, patients differ greatly in how they respond psychologically and emotionally to the diagnosis and treatment. Some cultivate new relationships, deepen existing ones, and grow substantially from the experience, yet others do not. We do not really know why some experience this growth and others do not, or how and when that growth comes about, but we do have a sense that the growth is likely important to coping with the major life crisis.

This project is using a longitudinal and prospective data collection approach where we start collecting data from participants right when they become diagnosed and follow them for 18 months. Over this time, we collect data in the lab and out in the field regarding how they feel about themselves, how much they think they have changed as a result from the cancer treatment, but we also collect data trying to examine whether they are actually behaving differently. If one person is saying that she has become more altruistic or empathic, is she actually doing so? Or is she likely to be more supportive of friends if she says that she has grown substantially from this experience? Do changes in any of these areas relate to biological markers related to health, well-being and cancer recurrence? We are using multiple approaches to address these questions. In addition to traditional self-report measures, we are also collecting data from cell-phones so that we can study changes in breast cancer patient’s subjective self-perception, as well as objectively measured behaviors as social connections via text message history and behavioral engagement via geolocation at more fine-grained scales; we are also drawing blood at various points of the 18-months to examine individual differences in biomarkers of health.

Overall, by collecting 18-month long longitudinal data starting at the very beginning of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, this project will be able to tell us whether post-traumatic growth actually happens overall (in the aggregate across many people), and what are the factors that make it more likely for one to experience this post-traumatic growth? This project will also tell us what are the traits that likely cause character growth? Do we need to experience changes in certain traits for post-traumatic growth to occur? If so, which traits are they? Lastly, this project will also be able to address whether what we say is happening to us (e.g., “I have become more empathic”), is actually reflected in their behavior and whether these changes are related to biology. This project is an exciting step in being able to more fully characterize what happens in the aftermath of these major life crises.