Individual meaning-centered psychotherapy for the treatment of psychological and existential distress: A randomized controlled trial in patients with advanced cancer

Cancer. 2018 Aug 1;124(15):3231-3239. doi: 10.1002/cncr.31539. Epub 2018 May 14.


Background: Patients with advanced cancer have high rates of psychological distress, including depression, anxiety, and spiritual despair. This study examined the effectiveness of individual meaning-centered psychotherapy (IMCP) in comparison with supportive psychotherapy (SP) and enhanced usual care (EUC) in improving spiritual well-being and quality of life and reducing psychological distress in patients with advanced cancer.

Methods: Patients (n = 321) were randomly assigned to IMCP (n = 109), SP (n = 108), or EUC (n = 104). Assessments were conducted at 4 time points: before intervention, midtreatment (4 weeks), 8 weeks after treatment, and 16 weeks after treatment.

Results: Significant treatment effects (small to medium in magnitude) were observed for IMCP, in comparison with EUC, for 5 of 7 outcome variables (quality of life, sense of meaning, spiritual well-being, anxiety, and desire for hastened death), with Cohen's d ranging from 0.1 to 0.34; no significant improvement was observed for patients receiving SP (d < 0.15 and P > .05 for all variables). The effect of IMCP was significantly greater than the effect of SP for quality of life and sense of meaning (d = 0.19) but not for the remaining study variables.

Conclusions: This study provides further support for the efficacy of IMCP as a treatment for psychological and existential/spiritual distress in patients with advanced cancer. Significant treatment effects (small to moderate effect sizes) were observed in comparison with usual care, and somewhat more modest differences in improvement (small effect sizes) were observed in comparison with SP. Thus, the benefits of meaning-centered psychotherapy appear to be unique to the intervention and highlight the importance of addressing existential issues with patients approaching the end of life. Cancer 2018. © 2018 American Cancer Society.

Keywords: depression; distress; meaning-centered psychotherapy; psychotherapy; spiritual well-being.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Depression / complications
  • Depression / pathology
  • Depression / psychology
  • Depression / therapy*
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Existentialism*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / complications
  • Neoplasms / pathology
  • Neoplasms / psychology
  • Neoplasms / therapy*
  • Palliative Care / psychology
  • Person-Centered Psychotherapy*
  • Quality of Life
  • Spirituality