Chester River Hospital Center
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Treating the Emotions Caused by Cancer


Richard G. Wirtz, Psy.D.

Possibly the most devastating words a person can hear are, “You have cancer.” A million questions come to mind. Darkest fears surface. But once the dust settles, many people learn that there are options. There are treatments. Most of all, there is hope. Medical treatments are clearly continuing to improve and our understanding of how the body responds to these treatments has helped reduce a variety of side effects. There are also many new, exciting approaches to treatment being researched and tested. However, the treatment of cancer is not simply a medical issue; it also involves the patient’s emotional and spiritual worlds and those of the family as well.

Fortunately, medical providers are aware of the emotional side of cancer and the need to identify patients and family members in distress. Doing so can improve treatment compliance, treatment outcome and overall quality of life. Screening programs have been developed to identify patients in distress and then to provide services designed to reduce that distress to more manageable and expected levels.

Kent & Queen Anne’s Hospital, through its affiliation with Johns Hopkins Hospital and the generosity of a local donor, has developed such a screening program as part of the hospital’s Cancer Counseling Program. It involves new patients beginning treatment and includes an interview with staff to review the screening and more broadly assess the individual’s functioning. A variety of interventions and services are then made available to the patient and family members. These range from educational materials and brief counseling to more detailed educational programs, support groups and ongoing psychotherapy. Many of these services are free; others are reimbursable through most major health insurance plans.

For many individuals supportive friends and family who listen actively and non-judgmentally to the feelings, worries and needs of cancer patients and respond sensitively is enough, but this is often made difficult by schedules, responsibilities and worries about upsetting others if these concerns are discussed. Often it is helpful to speak to someone outside of the family or social circle who is experienced, either through life or training, and will listen and sometimes offer their own thoughts. Talking with someone who has had the same illness and been through treatment themselves - a mentor of sorts - can help dispel misconceptions, allay fears, and offer helpful suggestions and emotional support. This can be done on a one-to-one basis or with others in the form of a support group.

Another powerful intervention for individuals at all levels of distress is information. Brochures, pamphlets, books, educational programs, cancer-related web sites, etc. help to dispel the mysteries and eliminate the uncertainties that cause distress, anxiety, and depression. Providing this information helps to reduce feelings of helplessness.

For individuals who have preexisting emotional difficulties or psychiatric conditions and/or those who develop these under the stress of the illness and its treatment, more specialized treatment in the form of counseling and medication can be extremely helpful. Such interventions may be aimed at the individual, the patient and his/her significant other, the children of the patient and/or the entire family. The goal is to reduce the distress to manageable levels, teach new skills to maintain this lower, healthier level of distress and develop problem-solving abilities for the future.

All of these services are currently available through the Hospital’s Cancer Counseling Program. If you or someone you know could benefit from these resources, please contact Dr. Richard Wirtz at (410) 778-3300 (Wednesdays only) or (410) 778-5550 or at [email protected]

Richard G. Wirtz, Psy.D., is a graduate of Baylor University. He is the director of the Cancer Counseling Program at Kent & Queen Anne’s Hospital and is in private practice with Chester River Behavior Health.