‘We should be developing psychological care for people affected by cancer beyond a reactive model’
For World Cancer Day on 4th February Dr Mike Rennoldson, Chair of the DCP Faculty for Oncology and Palliative Care, tells us about the main priorities and challenges for psychological research and practice around cancer.
‘The international psycho-oncology community began the last decade with a striking claim. Distress should become the sixth ‘vital sign’ of cancer care. Progress has been mixed. Looking ahead, we need to complete this unfinished business. But we cannot afford to neglect the twin challenges of inequality and prevention in psychological care in cancer.
In both research and practice psycho-oncology has steadily developed a presence and voice for the psychological care of people with cancer and their families. Effective psychological therapies have been developed and tested. The complex psychological burden borne by all affected by cancer has been laid bare, and the poorer survival outcomes of distressed cancer patients demonstrated. Services in the UK and internationally have expanded and found more effective ways of delivering psychological care within the vast industry of cancer care.
In the UK at least, there is much left to do. Access to quality psychological care is highly unequal. Too often it is determined by the hospital you happened to be treated in, and the type of cancer you have, not what your psychological need is. This has to change. No other ‘vital sign’ in cancer would be allowed to go untreated in this way.
However, we should be developing psychological care for people affected by cancer beyond a reactive model. Our traditional model of waiting for people to become significantly distressed, and for this to be picked up by the cancer care team and referred to us, risks entrenching health inequality, and missing the bigger goal of preventing distress in the first place.
The priority for researchers and clinicians must be to identify the groups of people affected by cancer most at risk of becoming significantly distressed, and developing programmes that reduce the incidence of distress. Psycho-oncology focussed upon prevention will reduce unnecessary suffering and more quickly address inequality of access to psychological help, and inequality of psychological outcomes.
Cancer may be unpredictable, but the stressors of treatment and living with cancer are predictable. This certain knowledge allows a window of opportunity to prevent distress in a vulnerable group that few psychological specialties have. As a community of researchers and practitioners it’s our job to take this opportunity.’
Dr Mike Rennoldson is Principal Lecturer in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University
Here are our articles from the archive on the psychological impact of cancer…
From the other side of the zipline
Clinical Psychologist 'Dr Roni Pea' with reflections on life-threatening illness
Keep on taking the medicine?
Parastou Donyai considers strategies for understanding and tackling medication non-adherence
The sibling spotlight
Rachel Batchelor on the challenges facing the ‘forgotten’ brothers and sisters of seriously ill children, including those with cancer
Personal reflections on coping and loss
Professor Adrian Furnham writes about the reactions of others to his wife’s cancer
‘You seldom heal… you live with cancer’
Ian Florance meets Cordelia Galgut to discuss how diagnosis and treatment has affected her work as a counselling psychologist
Experiences of hallucinogen treatment
We hear from a researcher, participant and clinician on the use of psilocybin to alleviate cancer anxiety
Psychology, men and cancer
Peter Branney, Karl Witty and Ian Eardley call for a consideration of masculinity in understanding and treating the disease
Can reassurance hurt?
Yuefang Zhou and Gerry Humphris have their own worries about the ‘don’t worry’ message in medical procedures
The 'late effects' of paediatric brain tumours
Helen Stocks, Kate Ablett and Matthew Morrall on the contribution of neuropsychological assessment to paediatric oncology services
Breast cancer - a voyage into hearts and minds
A voyage of discovery with survivors of breast cancer with Caroline Muttitt
And find psychological studies relating to cancer digested on our Research Digest:
A new study sheds light on ‘chemobrain’ – Christian Jarrett
Can psychosocial interventions extend the lives of cancer patients? – Christian Jarrett
Psychologists asked these skin cancer patients to draw their melanomas – Christian Jarrett
What’s it like to be a child and your sibling is diagnosed with cancer? – Christian Jarrett
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