Better Days

PsychOncology Clinic offers patients tools for coping

Better Days graphic
Michael Daly is feeling better since consulting the PsychOncology Clinic to get his anxiety and depression under control.

Visit the PsychOncology Program webpage to learn more.

After Michael Daly was diagnosed with cancer, he felt alone. He didn't know what to expect with his treatment and, in the early days, some of his doctors didn't offer much encouragement about his prognosis.

Daly was prescribed a medication to treat his anxiety and depression, but after a while, it stopped working.

"I found myself not wanting to get involved in my life and just vegetating," Daly said. "I wanted to get back into control of it, because I didn't want to spend my days waiting to die. I needed to get over that hump."

By then, Daly had chosen a new approach to treatment that brought him to the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. His oncologist suggested he consult with the Cancer Center's PsychOncology Clinic.

Staffed by social workers, psychiatrists and nurse practitioners, the PsychOncology Clinic provides assessments to Cancer Center patients to determine their level of distress and individual needs. The team then develops an action plan to help patients get the assistance that's right for them.

In 2007, the Institute of Medicine issued a report stating that every cancer patient should be evaluated for psychological distress. Michelle Riba, M.D., director of the Cancer Center's PsychOncology Program, said as many as 25% to 30% of people with cancer will have a psychological problem at some point during their care. The problems depend on the person and may include general anxiety or depression, personality issues or substance abuse.

Cancer treatment also may impact patients psychologically, Riba said. For example, certain medications may cause patients to become anxious.

The goal of a PsychOncology Clinic visit is to develop a care plan that might involve medications or referrals for longer-term therapy, community support groups or in-house Cancer Center resources, such as art therapy. Often, if someone has a past history of psychological problems, a cancer diagnosis and its treatment may cause the problems to recur or worsen, Riba said. For others, cancer may cause overwhelming emotions unlike any they've experienced, so they may benefit from having additional support.

"No one should be suffering with this," Riba said. "It's sort of like pain: If you break your arm, you might be in pain only temporarily, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't be treated for your pain. The same should be true in addressing psychological concerns. People should seek help when they're feeling emotionally overwhelmed."

For Daly, the PsychOncology Clinic suggested an adjustment in medication and provided an opportunity to talk periodically with Patty Miller, a nurse practitioner. The result has been a better state of mind, he said.

"I do have my highs and I do have my lows, but you can't appreciate the highs without the lows," Daly said. "I see the good in what the clinic has done for me, and I'm very happy with it. I think I'm doing well."

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Thrive Issue: 
Summer, 2011