Cancer Patients and Stress: How to Cope

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By Frank Tortorella, Margaret Meyer and Alma Rodriguez, M.D.

distress.jpgWhy do we ask about distress?
We know MD Anderson patients are getting excellent medical care, but that isn't enough. We also want our patients to get psychosocial support to navigate the emotional and psychological challenges that come with a diagnosis of cancer.

A cancer diagnosis can result in a period of increased distress for patients and their families. Patients experience a variety of emotions when dealing with the diagnosis and accompanying treatments.

Many describe the cancer experience like being on a roller coaster with ups and downs. It's a physically and emotionally draining experience.

Living with a chronic illness can be distressing. Many patients report feelings of anxiety in anticipation of appointments and concerns about family, talking to young children about cancer, finances and employment.

Since research has confirmed a connection between psychosocial concerns and clinical outcomes, we want to address both concerns.

Dealing with distress
MD Anderson provides numerous services aimed at alleviating symptoms of emotional distress. Some of these can be accessed by patients on their own, while others require a referral from the primary oncology team.

At MD Anderson, psychosocial resources available to help throughout the cancer experience include:
In addition, KIWI (Kids Inquire -- We Inform) helps parents and children learn healthy ways to discuss and cope with a cancer diagnosis in the family.

The best way to find out how our patients are doing is simple -- ask them.

When registering as a new patient, at periodic outpatient visits, and when admitted to the hospital, patients are asked to rate their level of distress on a 0-10 scale. All of us experience distress from time to time.

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network describes distress as "a continuum ranging from common normal feelings of vulnerability, sadness and fears to problems that can become disabling, such as depression, anxiety, panic, social isolations, and existential and spiritual crisis."

We want to help
If a patient's level of distress is 6 or higher, a referral will be made to a social work counselor to assess what types of services might be the most beneficial.

All patients are encouraged to let us know if they find themselves with overwhelming feelings of distress.

Psychiatry Service
Social Work
Integrative Medicine Center

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