The psycho-oncologist – a key figure at every stage of the adult cancer patient’s illness

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‘Introductory course on psycho-oncology in the adult patient’
February 15, 2017
  • The aim of the ‘Introductory course in psycho-oncology in the adult patient’ is to train psychologists, doctors and nurses in the approach to psychological treatment for the cancer patient.

  • Marta de la Fuente, head of the Psycho-oncology Service at MD Anderson Madrid, points out that, “any cancer patient, at any stage of the disease, may benefit from psychological intervention”.

It is not always easy to speak to a friend or a family member with cancer - this is something that’s also applicable to healthcare professionals working daily to improve the quality of life of these patients. With that in mind, MD Anderson Madrid has set up an ‘Introductory course on psycho-oncology in the adult patient’ aimed at both psychologists or psychology students who are interested in working in the field, and doctors and nurses who would like to learn more about the techniques used.

The aim of the course, to be held on March 3 and 4 at the hospital, is “to train future psychologists, doctors and/or nurses in the approach to the psychological treatment of the patient and his/her family”, explains Marta de la Fuente, head of the Psycho-oncology Service at MD Anderson Madrid and course co-ordinator.

As she explains, after an initial, more theoretical introduction in which the basic concepts of oncology and psychology deemed necessary to follow the course will be explained, the second part will be essentially practical in nature and techniques will include role-play, introspection and the analysis of each individual’s own resources at the personal and professional level. The latter is particularly important because “as psychologists and healthcare professionals, we are still caregivers”, stresses the specialist.

The importance of emotional self-control

The skills required in communicating with the patient and the professional’s emotional self-control are in fact an essential part of the course. “It is vital to have good emotional capacity and resources to work with experiences like these”, says Ms. De la Fuente, who goes on to say that a psychologist should regularly practice introspection to check their degree of involvement, are they dedicating enough time to taking care of themselves and are they respecting the limits between themselves and the patient? “Working on self-control is essential as it has a direct effect on clinical intervention with the patients”, she states.

In addition, regarding communication, Ms. de la Fuente underlines that the professional take care not to make the mistake of correcting and/or modifying the emotional state of the patients, as they may perceive this as an attempt to block their emotions and that they are not being understood. The specialist says the best strategy is “not to downplay the situation and to be at the patient’s side, to understand and try to redirect the patient’s emotional state in the case of disadaptation”.

A beneficial ‘treatment’ at any stage of the disease

A fundamental aspect to take into account when beginning psychological treatment with a cancer patient is that there is a real physical effect and that there are also treatments like chemotherapy or radiotherapy that may be interfering with the patient’s state of mind at just that time. In fact, “many of these patients present clear symptoms of depression and anxiety and come to the office because they do not know how to cope with the fear, uncertainty or the degree of anxiety”.

Most of these patients also want “short, occasional interventions to cope with a specific situation, because they are tired of doctor’s appointments”, stresses the psycho-oncologist. In addition to the fact that the patient may suffer a relapse during treatment causing their treatment plan to be reconsidered, this also means that the duration of treatment for these patients varies significantly from patient to patient.

Marta de la Fuente also points out that the topics dealt with during the intervention depend very much on the patient, although some of the most worrying things are “physical changes and disfiguration, death, discomfort and pain, being off work and going back to work, the suffering of their loved ones, the feeling of not having what it takes or not being strong enough to stand up to disease and, above all, dealing with feelings”. A series of problems dealt with by the psycho-oncologist physically, emotionally and behaviorally throughout the psychological intervention.

There is only one thing common to all cases and that is, “every cancer patient can benefit from a psychological intervention, even if it is only an assessment”. And not only at the onset of the disease, but also once the patient has got over the cancer. “Sometimes, there does not seem to be any emotional effect during the process, but it comes out once the patient has returned to ‘normal’, or has gone back to work and it is then that he/she realizes just what they have been through”, she states and recommends psychological treatment for cancer patients at any stage of the disease, from diagnosis through to the final phase for a cancer survivor.