How stress affects cancer patients

St. Mary’s Medical Center is one of three Colorado hospitals taking part in a study to evaluate how underserved lung and head-and-neck cancer patients and their caregivers respond to specialized care to help them manage their stress and emotions.

The hospital received a Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute grant from the University of Colorado for a three-year mental health interventional trial. The other hospitals participating are St. Joseph Hospital and Denver Health. The study started about six months ago.

“When a patient first comes in and is told they have cancer, it’s a huge shock. They don’t know what they need necessarily,” said Marty Jacobson, research director for St. Mary’s Medical Center. “They don’t know what they need emotionally, financially, the whole thing.”

The study deals with stepped-care mental health counseling, in which underserved patients and their caregivers meet with a social worker who can address each of their needs individually.

Underserved patients can range from those who are financially challenged to those who have no support or help at home to those who have a language barrier.

“Stepped means it’s tailored. It’s designed to adapt to what their needs are as they go through treatment,” said Dr. Vernon King, an oncologist who is serving as a site investigator for this study at St. Mary’s.

Patients and caregivers are selected at random to participate. If they agree, they will either be put in the study with the stepped care or receive the standard care the hospital has been providing. Participants will fill out four surveys over a six-month period. 

Part of the grant money received will go toward patients in the program, according to Jacobson.

“We don’t like to necessarily pay patients, but in this case it makes sense because these surveys can be long sometimes. We don’t want to encourage people to not participate,” he said.

Jacobson declined to say how much grant money the hospital received or how many patients are part of the study.

While all cancers come with a large amount of emotional distress, head-and-neck — which are grouped together — and lung cancers were selected because they typically come with less optimistic diagnoses and especially painful procedures.

According to Dr. Steve Emmons, an oncologist and site investigator at St. Mary’s, many lung cancers are caught late and are typically more advanced.

Head-and-neck cancers also come with intense treatment that greatly affects quality of life and can sometimes include very difficult surgeries. 

“It makes all the sense in the world to pick these two cancers,” Emmons said. “These are two cancers where there is a lot of emotional distress.”

King added that it’s very important that caregivers are also included in the study as they deal with a large amount of stress as well during treatment.

“For me, I don’t think I’ve seen a study before where the caregiver is included in the study,” King said. “To me, that’s a remarkable part of this.”

The study will be written and published at the University of Colorado and can have a big impact on how mental health treatment accompanying cancer is treated in the future.

“This study is really important because it can change what that care plan for that cancer patient looks like going forward,” St. Mary’s nurse and research coordinator Serenity Marabito said.


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