The Commission on Cancer has protocols for screening and treating patients with cancer who have depression. However, those same kinds of procedures are not in place for patients with anxiety, which could make up a larger percentage than those with depression in the oncology space.
“We say to patients with cancer, ‘You’re not alone in this. You’ve got us to lean on,’” said Linda Bohannon, RN, BSN, MSM, president of the Cancer Support Community, and an oncology nurse.
“And I’d like providers to hear that as well. They’re not alone in this. They must screen patients, and they must screen patients early, because that is really the top of the spear to help us understand what resources patients may need.”
Recent findings from the 2020 Cancer Support Community’s Cancer Experience Registry Report showed that 49% of patients were at risk for clinically significant levels of anxiety, and 38% were at risk for clinically significant levels of depression.
“As an oncology nurse, I see us as frontline providers,” Bohannon said. “I see us spending a lot more time with patients than any other on the cancer care team, and that’s something that we can really have an impact on.”
Health care providers – including oncology nurses – can turn to helpful resources and organizations, such as the Cancer Support Community, especially when the patient needs something that is not treatment-based, such as a ride to a clinical trial or treatment site, babysitter, or help with housework.
All those tasks can be daunting on a patient, and lead to more anxiety. That’s why Bohannon emphasized having those conversations early on with patients.
“Those are all very practical things that can lead to depression and anxiety,” Bohannon said. “[Health care providers] don’t have to be the ones to manage the findings; they can refer patients to us and other organizations like us to help manage those particular needs.”
Bohannon said that clinicians are good at asking patients about symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting. She recommends asking them how those symptoms are affecting their quality of life, as again, early interventions can lead to better outcomes.
“Make sure that while we are treating the cancer within the patient, that we are also treating the patient who has cancer,” Bohannon said. “Now there’s been so much advancement [in cancer treatment] that it’s not just about keeping people alive, it’s also about keeping people alive and having them live well with their cancer at the same time.”
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