When you’re first diagnosed with something like breast cancer, ovarian cancer or another rare condition there’s a million things racing through your mind and a million and one things to get done. You’re flooded with information and appointments and the “to do” list can be almost as overwhelming as the diagnosis. Mental health can easily suffer for patients during this time and unfortunately, its usually not addressed by health care providers.
“More than 40 percent of cancer patients can develop significant distress related to not having concerns such as mood, body image issues, sexual function, and anticipatory grief managed.”
But proper mental health care can be life-changing for both patients and patient’s families during times like these. A new diagnosis is a lot to cope with, and the treatment process can be taxing on children, partners, and family dynamics as a whole.
The field centered on mental health within cancer care is called psychosocial psychology. It covers various disciplines including psychology, psychiatry, spiritual care, and social work.
Frequently cancer centers offer psychosocial oncology services, but that doesn’t mean all patients have access. Even if they do, support might not last as long as its needed. Too often care ends after treatment, but unfortunately many patients face anxiety while in remission due to fear of recurrence.
We need mental health care to be more accessible, more reliable, and longer lasting.
The issue of access
Not all cancer centers offer on-site therapists and the ones that do often have absurd wait times. This can be extremely problematic for patients who live in rural areas or for whom transportation is difficult.
This issue crosses country lines. Esther Sabet is a breast cancer patient in Canada who struggled to find psychosocial support. Esther’s local cancer center did not have a psychologist on-site. Private psychologists are extremely expensive and were not an option for her. There are also government-funded therapists in Canada but the wait time for one of them would be around one year for Esther.
Thankfully, Esther was able to see a psychologist rather quickly due to a personal connection she had. However, everyone is not that lucky.
While telemedicine is helping to increase access, we are certainly not where we need to be in terms of ease of finding care.
How to make progress
“One idea for improving access is to train nurses to screen for and potentially manage symptoms related to psychosocial oncology.”
One of the best ways we can support the development of access in this field is to make more people aware of its importance. This needs to begin with the healthcare professionals who are the first to interact with a newly diagnosed patient.
Unfortunately, mental health is often not a big enough focus during the training of medical providers. If we work to increase this education, healthcare professionals will likely be more willing to recommend, support, and encourage their patients to obtain this type of care.
Ideally, the services could be provided within all cancer centers themselves. Not only would that be more convenient and minimize issues of access, it would allow patients to interact with professionals they have already developed a trusting relationship with. Unfortunately, we all know physician’s time is already extremely limited. But even if they can’t offer those services themselves, physicians can work to be more vocal and encouraging of psychosocial oncology services, providing the information patient’s need to find the service right for them.
This one simple conversation between doctor and patient could honestly change lives.
You can read more about the psychosocial oncology system in Canada that Esther dealt with here, and the ways in which Canadian specialists believe the system could be improved. Across country lines, we need to place a bigger emphasis on mental health. Doing so could significantly improve the quality of life of many patients.