Complex, emotional impact of cancer
Despite medical advances, continual increases in survival rates and positive media on cancer survivors, for many the word "cancer" still meant death and loss, a Massey University researcher has found.
The perception that cancer is still incurable persists, clinical psychology doctorate graduate Dr Colette Nixon said.
"The initial thought for people when they are first diagnosed is that they've got cancer, they're going to die."
The psychological and emotional impact of this had only recently been recognised, she said.
Nixon studied the impact of therapy provided by a Massey University-led psychology service for cancer patients in the Manawatu region.
The service, at Massey's Palmerston North campus, is one of only six in New Zealand and helps those coping with a cancer diagnosis to manage their emotional distress at different crisis points.
These encompass diagnosis, the start of treatment, the end of treatment, recurrence of cancer, and in some cases, the terminal phase.
"The transition from treatment to cancer survivor is frequently a time when a patient's distress levels may increase significantly. Rather than celebratory, people may feel a fear of recurrence," Nixon said.
Senior psychologist Don Baken said cancer was not just about survival but about getting there as well.
"We're now doing well with treatment but it's a person and a family affected by cancer, so it's recognition of the fact we need to treat the whole person."
Baken said the perception of cancer could come down to a person's experience with the disease, whether in their own family or through the media, or depending on the generation in which they grew up.
Lower survival rates and less discussion about cancer in previous generations could mean a more negative view of the disease, he said.
Nixon's research found the specialised nature of the psychology service gave clients more confidence because they felt the therapists understood clinical aspects of cancer diagnosis and treatment as the context for their emotions.
This made it easier for them to open up emotionally, particularly those who felt a stigma attached to seeking psychological help, Nixon said.
An estimated 30 per cent of all cancer sufferers didn't cope with the high levels of distress caused by cancer treatment, as well as the disease itself, she said.
"There's no simple formula. The starting point is accepting whatever it is they are feeling, reassuring them that it's OK to feel distressed, angry, sad, that it's OK to cry.
"Some people will say: ‘I shouldn't be feeling like this - there are others worse off'. It's important to have someone to express those feelings to."
One finding Nixon found particularly interesting was the connection between psychologists and patients, seen from both the patient and therapist's points of view.
Therapists felt they had a stronger connection with cancer patients compared to non-cancer patients.
"The journey is an existential experience. [Patients] look at their life as a whole and analyse their lives.
"It's a brief service but they feel they have a brief time left to talk about it, so it's a faster journey to what's causing them distress."
Nixon hoped the findings and recent increased funding for cancer support would help establish more dedicated cancer psychology services throughout New Zealand.