Weaving Compassion Into the Fabric of Cancer Treatment

Richard P. McQuellon, PhD, HSP-P
Published: Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Wake Forest Baptist Medical
CenterRichard P. McQuellon,
Richard P. McQuellon,
Professor of Medicine
Director, Psychosocial Oncology and Cancer Patient Support Programs
Comprehensive Cancer Center of Wake Forest Baptist Medical CenterHui-Kuo Shu, MD, PhD
The diagnosis of cancer is almost always a shock for patients and family members. It is estimated that 30% to 50% of patients experience some debilitating anxiety or depressive symptoms at some time along their cancer diagnosis and treatment trajectory.1 Their caregivers likely sustain similar rates of anxiety, depressive symptoms, and distress.

The Comprehensive Cancer Center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center provides programs and services that are integrated into the ongoing care of patients in order to make professional assistance available easily and seamlessly.

For example, all patients are screened for distress when they are seen by their cancer healthcare provider. The integration of personalized, patient-centered care at the point of delivery of medical services is a unique aspect of care at our Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The Psychosocial Oncology and Cancer Patient Support Programs were designed to address the emotional distress of patients and family members.2 The mission of these programs is to reduce suffering and enhance quality of life of patients as well as caregivers during the diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship process, from the beginning of care throughout the life span.

These programs are woven into a broader network of professional services that are part of the supportive care and survivorship services network for our medical center and community. Research has shown that patients who access three or more supportive care services are likely to have increased satisfaction and better overall outcomes.3

Access to such services is readily available to all of our patients treated in medical oncology, surgical oncology, and radiation oncology. Many studies have reported the efficacy of psychosocial interventions4 and the importance of quality of life to patients.5

The Psychosocial Oncology and Cancer Patient Support Programs are staffed by approximately 30 volunteers and six professionals trained in counseling, administrative support, and therapeutic music.

Most of our volunteers are either veteran cancer patients themselves or have been caregivers for patients over the years. They bring deep listening and empathy that have been finely tuned through their own experience. Volunteers provide hospitality, empathic listening, and a welcome presence for all patients attending our cancer center.

One of our volunteers, paraphrasing Mother Teresa commented, “I may not be able to do great things as a volunteer, but I can do small things with great love.” Both professional staff and volunteers perform a very important navigation function by helping to connect patients and families to needed services.

A hallmark of our program is the integration of our services into the ongoing medical care of patients. For example, we can see patients for counseling or other services such as massage while they are being seen concurrently by healthcare providers for medical treatment. It is not uncommon for our staff to be counseling with a patient during their chemotherapy treatment. This reduces the necessity for travel and overall cost to the patient for their care.

This dimension of integrated psychosocial care is rare in cancer care facilities given the logistical challenge to doing so. Fortunately, we are well supported by philanthropy and institutional funds to provide these services to patients with cancer and caregivers without charge.

The Psychosocial Oncology and Cancer Patient Support Programs provide counseling services, patient education, patient advocacy, educational/support groups, teaching, financial aid, and research activities nested within the section of Hematology and Oncology in the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. We also are able to provide specialized cancer recovery and survivorship-skills training for patients.

The psychosocial care of distressed patients is linked to important outcomes. For example, successful treatment of depression can enhance recovery as well as reduce the cost of treating patients.6

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