Make Mental Health Support a Part of Cancer Care

May 10, 2017

U.S. News

Nicole Taylor-Irwin

"So, when are you going to die from your cancer?"

A cancer patient shared this statement with me during a counseling session. A close friend had asked the question, which is but one example of the range of uninformed reactions that friends and family members can have when someone discloses a diagnosis of cancer.

Imagine for a moment that you have been diagnosed with cancer. What would you do? Who would you tell? What would they say?

Unfortunately, there's a good chance you'll have to ask yourself these questions: 41 percent of people will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetimes. Cancer is a term given to over 100 types of malignancies, which range in severity from easily treated to terminal. The emotional reactions that accompany cancer vary to an even greater degree, for both the patient and loved ones.

For every person diagnosed with cancer, at least six people close to them are emotionally affected by that diagnosis. These family and friends are often scared and struggle to find the right words and methods of providing emotional support, doling out platitudes about how everything will be okay. These well-intentioned statements may be helpful in the moment, but often fall flat when cancer patients confront deep-seated fears about their mortality and health. They need well-trained and objective professionals who can walk with them on the dark journey, especially when friends and family members may be incapacitated by fear.

About half of cancer patients experience significant distress during their diagnosis, treatment and survivorship. Furthermore, approximately a quarter of the population has a diagnosable mental health or substance use disorder; a sizable number of cancer patients already need support before they are diagnosed. It is essential that mental health counseling be added as a covered benefit for cancer patients. Cancer patients with pre-existing mental health conditions need extra support from professionals, and for around a third of cancer patients, the diagnosis and treatment process can cause depression, anxiety, relationship problems and other concerns. Regardless of the sequencing of whether the psychological distress came before or after the cancer diagnosis, neither cancer nor mental health issues discriminate; anyone can be affected at any time.

New standards for accreditation of cancer centers include provisions for distress screening. As the medical community moves to include psychological distress, regularly screening patients for what is known as the "sixth vital sign," medical insurance payors need to catch up. In addition to screening for distress, cancer patients and their families need support resources that are readily available for times of crisis as well as ongoing counseling.

Cancer patients often report that loved ones give them advice about how they should deal with cancer, when what they most need is a shoulder to cry on or a friend to make them smile. Working with a well-trained professional is an essential part of cancer treatment for many patients, which can help with the healing process and increase quality of life.

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