What is Psychosocial Oncology?

The word “psychosocial” may seem intimidating, but it may help to break down what it means. The root of “psycho” means relating to the mind or the psyche, and the “social” part is about the relationships people have with family and with society. “Oncology” means the branch of medicine that deals with cancer.

In other words, psychosocial oncology is a specialty in cancer care concerned with understanding and treating the social, psychological, emotional, spiritual, quality-of-life and functional aspects of cancer, from prevention through bereavement. It is a whole-person approach to cancer care that addresses a range of very human needs that can improve quality of life for people affected by cancer.

Why is Psychosocial Oncology important?

The burden of cancer in Canada is significant and growing.  The Canadian Cancer Society estimates 166,400 cases of new cancer and 73,800 deaths from cancer will occur in Canada in 2008. While the physical symptoms of cancer are addressed with medical treatment, the emotional impact of the disease frequently goes unattended leaving patients, families, and friends alone to cope, often ill-equipped to deal with the illness and unfamiliar with assistance and resources.

Psychosocial oncology is a specialty in cancer care concerned with the understanding and treatment of the social, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and functional aspects of cancer, at all stages of the disease trajectory from prevention through to bereavement. Psychosocial oncology involves a whole-person approach to cancer care that addresses a range of human needs that can improve or optimize the best possible quality of life for individuals and their networks affected by cancer.

Cancer has a direct impact on the lives of millions of Canadians. Current incidence rates show that 39% of Canadian women and 45% of men will develop cancer. On average, 3,200 Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer every week and 1,419 Canadians will die of cancer every week. (source Canadian Cancer Society: Canadian Cancer Statistics 2008). A significant proportion of cancer patients at all stages of the disease will suffer social, emotional and psychological distress and challenges as a result of the disease and its treatment.

Research demonstrates that psychosocial and emotional distress, which is often experienced in the form of depression or other adjustment difficulties, is a significant problem for up to half of all cancer patients (Carlson and Bultz, 2002; 2003; 2004). 

There is a large variety of counselling and support programs available, including those designed to help people cope with cancer from the initial stage of diagnosis, through their treatments, to adjust to post-treatment side effects, or in managing ongoing impacts. There are also specific programs and approaches to assist those and their families to deal with metastatic disease and who receive palliative care. Psychosocial counselling provided to cancer patients and their families is helpful in alleviating emotional suffering and in assisting to confront and manage the many issues that arise during this difficult time. It may even benefit medical outcomes such as increased treatment compliance and survival (Carlson and Bultz, 2003). Furthermore, there are cost benefits to addressing the emotional aspect of cancer. For example, research in the area of mental health, in cancer and within other patient groups shows a large savings in medical billing through the treatment of emotional problems, resulting in fewer visits to family doctors and specialists after receiving psychosocial care (Carlson and Bultz, 2004).

Without emotional support, people often struggle, feel isolated and alone in coping with significant issues, such as feeling vulnerable around their own mortality, and in dealing with complex questions around the quality and quantity of their lives.

The impact of the illness can also compound the challenges of everyday life, related, for instance, to marital relationships and difficulties or to family communications issues. The compounding of such stressful daily issues may further add to the understandable, but often considerable anxiety of living with the cancer itself.

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