What Is Psycho-Oncology?

Mary McMahon

Psycho-oncology is an area of research and clinical practice focused on the psychological and social impacts of cancer. Researchers in this field look at how psychological factors can contribute to the development of cancer as well as dictating how well a patient responds to treatment. In addition, they consider the role cancer plays in the lives of friends, family members, caregivers, and other people who may interact with a cancer patient. Facilities that provide cancer care may include a psycho-oncology service for those patients who might benefit from it.

A psycho-oncology practitioner may help a cancer patient deal with the social and emotional aspects of a long-term hospitalization.
A psycho-oncology practitioner may help a cancer patient deal with the social and emotional aspects of a long-term hospitalization.

Clinically, psycho-oncology provides mechanisms for evaluating patients and providing psychological interventions that may be beneficial. These include not just the patients themselves, but also their family members, as cancer can often become a family diagnosis that involves parents, children, siblings, and other relatives. In a young child diagnosed with cancer, for example, parents might experience emotional distress and a younger sibling might be worried or confused. A psycho-oncology practitioner can provide guidance and assistance to help people deal with the diagnosis.

Cancer centers may employ psycho-oncology professionals as members of a patient's care team.
Cancer centers may employ psycho-oncology professionals as members of a patient's care team.

Cancer patients may be frightened or worried, both of which have a demonstrated impact on the ability to heal. Psycho-oncology specialists work with patients to address specific issues, screen people for risk of depression and suicidal thoughts, and help other members of a care team provide the best possible care to the patient. Caring for psychological needs has an impact on patient outcomes, as does the patient’s own psychological state and attitudes. Confronting complex and difficult subjects may help the patient fight the cancer more effectively.

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Psychological factors may impact how well a cancer patient responds to treatment.
Psychological factors may impact how well a cancer patient responds to treatment.

Cognitive decline can be a common problem for cancer patients in treatment because of the medications used. So-called “chemo brain” can be frustrating and scary for patients, and is also a subject of interest among researchers and caregivers. An understanding of psycho-oncology can help parents and care providers prepare for cognitive effects of cancer treatment, as well as issues that may linge. People who recover from brain tumors, for example, may have cognitive effects for life because their brains didn’t fully heal and are trying to compensate for missing or damaged tissue.

These is also considerable interest in research in this field. Some studies look at psychological factors that may play a role in the development of tumors; for instance, high stress can degrade immune function, which may make it harder for the body to identify and kill malignant cells. Other studies explore how patient and caregiver attitudes during treatment and recovery influence outcomes. The goal of such research is to prevent cancers if possible, and make treatment more effective when they develop.

Psycho-oncology looks at how different people deal with cancer diagnoses.
Psycho-oncology looks at how different people deal with cancer diagnoses.

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