By Mitzi Baker
An Emotional Toll
Support can help mitigate cancer’s long-term effects on survivors
By Mitzi Baker
Therapy may help survivors who are going through emotional distress in their relationships, too. Anger is likely to be greater for those who are separated than those who are widowed, says Gwen Sprehn, a neuropsychologist at the Indiana University School of Medicine. “We know that the immune system is intricately involved in the body’s effort to resist cancer,” says Sprehn, the lead author of the Cancer study. “And separation is a time of acute stress, affecting many aspects of one’s life, such as changes in home, finances, etc.”
Sprehn hits on a point. Maybe the impact of some of the practical burdens of a cancer diagnosis—potentially stopping work for a while, rushing around to doctor appointments, negotiating medical insurance coverage, worrying about how to talk with family members—could determine how a patient fares years later. In other words, it’s not just the generalized stress of a bad relationship, but the lack of a support system (which may accompany a bad relationship) to help survivors cope and simply get through the everyday, says Leora Lowenthal, the supervisor in the department of patient-centered care at New York University Langone Medical Center.
But what if you don’t happen to have people you can turn to for help? Create your own support system.
Most cancer centers have an oncology social worker available—usually at no charge—to provide supportive counseling for patients and families, case management, educational materials and connections with community resources, says Lowenthal. If you aren’t aware of one, ask your doctor. “The physician may help by providing a referral to the social worker or therapist,” says Kate Pederson, the senior patient services manager at the National Marrow Donor Program Office of Patient Advocacy, in Minneapolis.
“People are often very self-conscious about raising non-medical concerns with their oncologist,” says Lowenthal, who is also the education director of the Association of Oncology Social Work. But patients need to take the initiative and bring it up, she adds. “We all know that cancer is universally a stressful event in people’s lives, and everything is easier if you have supportive people around.”