Psycho-oncology research and information is providing much-needed knowledge about the emotional and mental challenges of having cancer. Sandra Bollen-Hughes tells us more.
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It may be a surprise to some that as much as a journey with cancer is a physical trial, it’s also a mental, emotional, and spiritual trial. This means that it’s often a time when counselling and support may be needed.
Since the 1970s there has been a specific interest in supporting cancer patients optimally. This meant studying patients’ responses and needs through their cancer journeys. This specialised field of study has officially been called psycho-oncology.
The pioneer leading the way was Dr Jimmie Holland from the USA. Together with a few other concerned psychiatrists, she started the first psychiatric support centre for cancer patients at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. This was the first time cancer patients were included in systematic research as well as receiving therapeutic intervention and support. From there the interest has grown rapidly and today there are various international societies and conferences to share and spread the knowledge of the field of psycho-oncology.
Two aims of psycho-oncology
The first aim of psycho-oncology is to understand the patients’ reactions and needs at various points along the cancer journey. Caregivers and families have also been the focusof some studies. The second aim is to identify if there are any specific factors that influence the cancer process and responses to treatment.
Psycho-oncology is therefore the study of a generally normal population group who are experiencing a specific form of stressor, an abnormal circumstance (cancer). Those who thought psychology was only the study of mental illness may be surprised by this. Indeed, psychotherapy in general isn’t only for those with mental health issues, but for anyone who is struggling with life issues and circumstances. Cancer often places patients in a place of need where support and counselling would be beneficial.
Normal and to be expected
Psycho-oncology has made important contributions to the knowledge of the unique trials and tribulations of cancer patients and their families and caregivers. One of the most significant is highlighting what is normal and to be expected from patients.
We know, for example, that the typical reactions to being given a diagnosis include shock, disbelief, a sense of alienation, and mental confusion.
These reactions are now considered so common as to be expected and can be normalised by doctors and counsellors working with those who have recently received a diagnosis.
Obsessive thinking around the illness and fears often arise during treatment. Studies also show that patients can at times have some difficulties adjusting to life after cancer treatments, a reaction that may seem counterintuitive at first glance.
This shows that psycho-oncology helps us to understand the responses to the challenges of travelling the cancer journey and gives us a road map of where patients are and what they might reasonably expect.
Tackling the myths
Psycho-oncology research also provides an immense opportunity for learning and understanding as there are many myths and beliefs about cancer which are being rigorously put to the test. For example, Dr Holland explains that there is no evidence of a link between personality and the development of cancer. Many patients may feel a sense of guilt that they are to blame for their illness. Studies in this regard show that there is no particular personality profile that is more associated with the development of cancer.1
Findings like this can free patients from additional misconceptions, guilt, and fears and allow them to focus their energy on doing what is the very best for them: healing, resting, coping and getting support.
- Holland, J.C.; Lewis, S. (2000) The Humans Side of Cancer – Living with Hope, Coping with Uncertainty.; New York.
MEET THE EXPERT – Sandra Bollen-Hughes
Sandra Bollen-Hughes is a counselling psychologist. In 2015 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and realised the great burden of stress that cancer places on patients and so she developed an interest in cancer counselling. She went on to study cancer counselling to gather insight into the field of psycho-oncology. She runs a practice both for general and cancer counselling.
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