Psycho-oncology: The Liaison between Cancer and Mental Health
In recognition of the relationship of psychology with an individual’s overall health and well-being, the field of health psychology was born. While any medical condition could bring with itself some of level of physical as well as psychological distress and some kind of limitations in the individual’s daily functioning; however there are certain medical conditions which tend to be more chronic in nature, implying that these limitations would be increasingly having an adverse impact on not just the individual suffering from the illness but also on the significant others and caregivers caring for the patient. One such illness is cancer, and one of the sub-fields within health psychology is called psycho-oncology, which is centered around the tenet of liaison between cancer and mental health.
Palliative care and terminal illnesses are undoubtedly the most dreaded amongst chronic illnesses. And in spite of the growing advancements in the medical sciences in the recent years, even today the word ‘cancer’ is often associated with extreme distress, discomfort and anguish, for the patients, their families as well as caregivers. In itself, the sense of uncertainty becomes one of the most significant factors influencing an individual’s journey in coping with cancer, adding to the fears, worries and apprehensions in both the patients as well as their caregivers.
From the very beginning, at the time of getting a screening, with its fears and apprehensions of a positive result, to the time of having to accept a diagnosis, with questioning ‘why me?!’ Such apprehensions in themselves breed a sense of hesitation in getting oneself screened, further coupled by the stress of prognosis and treatment outcomes.
Therefore, the process from diagnosis until the treatment stages in itself is coupled with numerous challenges including psycho-social, financial, emotional, as well as physical stressors. In fact, cancer in itself could also have an adverse impact on the individual’s interpersonal relationships, self-esteem and sense of self, body image, career, and daily lifestyle, thereby impacting the overall quality of life as well.
Further, the impact of coping with cancer is not restricted to the patient but also tends to extend to the caregivers and significant others involved in the care, as it is also shared by the entire family. It seems to be completely natural for caregivers of any patient to experience distress, worry and concern regarding the patient; in addition, the caregiver tends to become responsible for providing for the other needs of the patients including physical mobility, self-care, dietary restrictions, or any other forms of dependency. What becomes important to understand is that this experience tends to take a greater toll simply when the duration extends to a longer time period in a chronic illness, or with a palliative care. The caregivers can experience something that is called a caregiver burnout!
Considering all these factors in interaction, it therefore becomes all the more important to be able to recognize the role of psychological support for patients as well as their caregivers when coping with cancer. Supportive counseling can help deal with the transitions and challenges associated with the disease, and a positive attitude can go a long way in helping the cancer patient and family to cope. This does not necessarily mean negating the fears, frustrations or distress that cancer may bring with it, but rather equipping the individual with more adaptive coping mechanisms to cope with the psychological as well as physical distress.
During the process of this journey, both for the patient as well as the caregivers, there could be a lot of challenges experienced, dealing with fears, bereavement, or with unanticipated setbacks or crises as well. In such cases, the individual must have a strong support system in place. In fact, this is where the role of professional help being available and accessible is a must. And one of the best and most effective ways of doing so is in the form of a helpline number, where a trained psycho-oncologist and a team of mental health experts could be available to listen as well as provide support to the patient as well as their caregivers. All of this can actually go a long way in maintaining a psychological well-being and an overall quality of life.