The University of Arizona College of Nursing will spend the next four years and a $2.5 million National Cancer Institute grant investigating ways to ease the psychological distress of cancer patients and their caregivers.
Serious mental-health issues, such as anxiety and depression, affect nearly one-third of cancer patients and an even larger percentage of their caregivers, according to the American Cancer Society. Only about a quarter of cancer patients use support groups to cope, and nearly half of patients who book mental-health appointments don’t follow through.
UA nursing professor Terry Badger hopes to make it easier for patients and their family caregivers to access the support they need to help improve the quality of their lives by developing supportive-care treatments that are easily delivered.
Two treatments have already proven successful in earlier research, but Badger and her team want to know if those techniques can be even more successful when tailored to an individual.
One of the existing intervention methods is a handbook on symptom management and survivorship describing effective self-care strategies. The other involves using telephone counseling, along with the handbook, for dealing with distress. More traditional research has relied on these methods using a “one-size-fits-all” approach where everyone is given treatment in the same way.
Badger instead seeks to find a more flexible approach: After the first four weeks of a single intervention, participants’ progress will be evaluated and the treatment method can continue as is or be changed on an individual basis.
What also makes this study different is its attention to caregivers.
“A lot of times (studies) focus on the cancer survivor, but caregivers supply an awful lot of care when someone has cancer. They pick up a lot of roles and responsibilities because a person is too ill,” Badger told the Arizona Daily Star.
“Caregivers are under an incredible amount of stress,” said Sandy Davenport, caregiver specialist at the Pima Council on Aging. “They usually end up neglecting themselves in terms of time off, self-care and medical self-neglect. They don’t feel like they have the time and space to take a break.”
This pressure puts them at risk for anxiety, depression, substance abuse or even taking out frustrations on their care recipient, Davenport said. The Council on Aging provides many resources for cancer patients and caregivers as well.
The study will involve about 300 cancer patients and 300 caregivers participating in 12-week programs during the four-year study.
“It’s all about trying to figure out what the right treatment for that particular survivor/caregiver” is, Badger said.
“At the end of the study, we will be able to critically look and see, ‘For a person with these characteristics, treatment A might be a better first step, and then treatment B,’” or vice versa.
This flexibility could work to the advantage of patients and caregivers who must also manage other obstacles and responsibilities such as child care, transportation, costs and stigma that can prevent them from getting the care they need.