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Thursday, Sept. 3, 2009 06:27 pm

Walking ‘Side by Side’ with cancer patients

SIU psycho-oncology program treats emotional stress

Cancer care isn’t only about treating physical symptoms — it’s also about helping patients handle the emotional distress that accompanies their illness, says Dr. Rhonda Johnson, the director of the new psycho-oncology division of the SimmonsCooper Cancer Institute at Southern Illinois University.

“They’ve undergone chemotherapy, they’ve lost their hair, they may have lost pieces of their body, they may not be able to work, they worry about children, they worry that they’re a burden to their family,” she says. “All of those things interact to cause distress.”

In the year since Johnson moved from Edmond, Okla., to Springfield, she’s introduced and cultivated psycho-oncology, a progressive approach to cancer treatment that provides psychological services to patients through a new program called “Side by Side.”

Johnson, as a member of the cancer care team at the SimmonsCooper Cancer Institute [see “SIU cancer institute needs funds to ‘make it run,’” Aug. 27], first meets with patients during their diagnosis. She gives them a “distress thermometer,” a tool that evaluates their level of distress based on responses to questions about emotional, psychological and social stressors.

If patients exhibit a high level of distress, Johnson helps connect them to resources that they need. If they’re worried about finances or accessing medicine, Johnson introduces them to the program’s social worker, Katherine Howerter. If they’re experiencing pain or nausea, she calls on nurses for help with treatment options. If they’re having a difficult time dealing with cancer and how it affects their lives, Johnson continues to counsel them.

“We use it as a tool to determine: what do we need to do to help this person?” Johnson says. “Sometimes it’s not stuff they’ve said to the physician when they’ve come in, or it catches stuff that patients didn’t think of or remember to tell us.”

Ten years ago, Johnson says, psychologists didn’t have substantial evidence that high levels of distress could affect a cancer patient’s healing process. But now they’ve documented a relationship between increased rates of chronic stress and cancer recurrence. They can also show that patients who have high levels of distress are less likely to complete their care regimens.

“It’s really not just a nicety,” Johnson says. “It really is becoming imperative that we address this piece of healing.”

Patients’ response to Side by Side has been mixed. It’s a new concept for the capital city (there are psycho-oncology programs in Chicago and St. Louis, but no others in Springfield), so some patients assume that a psychologist’s interest means that there’s something wrong with them. Johnson “normalizes” their emotional response to cancer, assuring them that her program works to fill treatment gaps.

“It’s about helping you find good ways to cope,” Johnson says. “It’s about using every resource we can to be well as you go through this process.”

Most patients are excited to have access to such a novel program, Johnson adds, and will continue to benefit from its future initiatives. Once the SimmonsCooper Cancer Institute opens, the Side by Side program will offer free classes on yoga, journaling, art therapy and nutrition, as well as additional support groups, for patients and their caregivers.

Proceeds from the cancer institute’s ninth annual Denim & Diamonds fundraiser, scheduled for Oct. 2 at the Crowne Plaza-Springfield, will help fund these programs.
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