When most patients receive a cancer diagnosis, they are shocked and afraid. Doctors tell them the type and degree of cancer in their bodies and go on to describe a treatment regime. The patient goes home, anxious and afraid.
A New Kind of Cancer Doctor
A new type of cancer doctor is treating these patients, helping them survive longer and heal faster. They are not medical doctors, they are psychologists using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to treat cancer patients.
CBT is a short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving. Its goal is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are at the root of many of the difficulties people face, and so change the way they feel and perhaps increase the odds of beating cancer.
Stress, fear, and anxiety can make your health worse. The body responds to physical, mental, or emotional pressure by releasing stress hormones (such as epinephrine and norepinephrine) that increase blood pressure, speed heart rate, and raise blood sugar levels.
Centuries Old Treatment?
Depending on how you look at it, CBT has been around for centuries. Some cite the ancient Stoics as the first to change the way they think in order to alleviate suffering. Stoics believed that logic could be used to identify and discard false beliefs that lead to destructive emotions and make you feel bad.
When it comes to cancer, thoughts can be destructive. Many patients struggle with fear and anxiety in ways that impede treatment. For example, some will avoid checkups or procedures, such as MRIs, injections of chemo infusions because they are afraid and can’t get beyond that fear. Studies have found that anxiety can intensify the sensation of pain, which in turn can lead people to stop taking medications or to resist activities designed to help them heal. Depression and loneliness are also enemies of healing and recovery, and cancer patients frequently become depressed and isolated.
Stress Makes Cancer Worse
Some studies also suggest that psychological stress can affect a tumor’s ability to grow and spread. One study found that when mice with human tumors were kept confined or isolated from other mice—conditions that increase stress—their tumors were more likely to grow and spread (metastasize). Studies in mice and in human cancer cells grown in the laboratory have found that the stress hormone norepinephrine may promote metastasis.
CBT teaches cancer patients to overcome the fear of the care they need. Some psychologists visit patients at their doctor’s offices or at the facility where they undergo treatment to help them overcome fear and anxiety. Most will also meet with family members and help patients learn how to talk to others about their condition and get the love and support that they need.
Some medical organizations new recommend that all cancer patients be screened for stress and anxiety immediately after a cancer diagnosis and that they also receive periodic re-screening at critical points during the course of care. There are standardized tests and tools available, and the patient can be benchmarked at the beginning of treatment and monitored throughout. Patients that demonstrate harmful levels of stress can then be referred to the appropriate resource, including a psychologist.
The addition of CBT to cancer treatment is one more way in which our healthcare system is shifting to the “patient-centered” or “person-centered” model, treating the whole person, not just the disease or the condition of their bodies. It recognizes that non-medical factors can play an important role in recovery and that quality of life can be as important as physical health.