Cancer affects more than just the physical body of the patient; it also impacts the psychosocial realm of the patient and the caregiver. A cancer diagnosis opens the floodgates to the range of emotions that occur over the entire cancer journey. Monica Dean, Director of Patient Navigation Program Development at AONN+, discussed these issues with leaders from Cancer Support Community.
Here are the top 3 takeaways from this episode:
- Common and predictable distress points occur during the cancer journey. Stress and anxiety often accompany the diagnosis, treatment, and decision-making steps in the journey. In addition, posttreatment survivorship can also be a time of fear for patients and caregivers that is often overlooked. Unmanaged stress and anxiety lead to poorer patient outcomes.
Navigators should be aware of the many common challenges that patients and their caregivers experience as they learn to live with the feelings of fear and uncertainty that occur with cancer treatment and long-term survivorship. Navigators should be prepared to offer coping strategies for each step in the cancer journey. Just as navigators help normalize cancer treatment’s physical symptoms such as fatigue or nausea, they can do the same for the rollercoaster of emotions a patient and caregiver might experience.
- The mental health of the patient and caregiver is of crucial importance, yet it is often difficult to ask for and receive help. Emotional distress should be considered the “6th vital sign.” Although many patients report emotional distress, it often goes without intervention and a significant number of caregivers report feelings of guilt and anxiety. Many caregivers say that they were unprepared to provide care and are unable to address their own needs. It is important that navigators recognize that caregivers have their own fears and anxieties. Caregivers should be made aware of the support groups and other means of help that exist.
Navigators should also remember that they too are support givers and caregivers and need to take care of themselves as well.
- Resilience is a muscle that can be developed and strengthened. Although the “tyranny of positive thinking” can impose more stress and feelings of guilt on patients and caregivers, emotional resilience is something that can be taught instead. Resilience has many definitions, but it involves recalibration and learning to ask for help or support. Patients and caregivers need to know that they do not have to be “happy all the time” in order to be resilient. Navigators can teach patients and caregivers to develop and strengthen resiliency.
Also discussed in this podcast are the ways in which Covid-19 has complicated the cancer journey, with an emphasis on the impact it has had on the emotional health of caregivers.
The pandemic has led to a rise in the number of patients and caregivers reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety, and Cancer Support Community has seen an 80% increase in calls to their helpline. In addition to feelings of isolation and loneliness that have intensified during the months of the pandemic, a range of issues, from delayed or suspended screenings to financial upheaval, have made the entire process more emotionally fraught. Care providers are now seeing more late-stage diagnoses, which create even more guilt and stress.
And finally, the impact of social distancing has meant that caregivers frequently were not able to go to appointments with patients and were on the sidelines. Caregivers also sacrificed their own physical and mental health due in part to the problems created when families were forced to share limited bandwidth and other resources. All of these issues have only heightened the need for navigators to be aware of the emotional toll of cancer on patients and caregivers and to provide access to referrals and other strategies for managing these feelings.
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Stay tuned for the next episode: The Heart of a Researcher
Wednesday, December 22, 2021, at 7:00 PM ET
Ask Ruby: Emotional Response to Cancer Diagnosis
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