A man talking to a therapist who is wearing a cancer awareness ribbon

My Journey to Understand Psycho-Oncology

Last updated: November 2022

Before I tell my story, I'd like to distinguish the terms psychology and psycho-oncology, also called psychosocial oncology. Psychology is a particular field of the study of mind and behavior. Psycho-oncology studies the social, behavioral, and ethical aspects of cancer. So psycho-oncology is a specific branch of psychology.1

Lung cancer and our mental health

Before I was diagnosed with lung cancer, I never visited a psychologist or a psycho-oncologist. I was confident about my mental health and thought I didn't need them. Also, there is a stigma toward people with mental health problems. So I had never paid attention to psychology or psycho-oncology before.

I was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2015. In the beginning, I couldn't function because I was shocked, scared, devastated, sad, and sorry for myself and my loved ones, you name it. I hesitated but decided to see a psychologist, not expecting her to make a miracle, but maybe she could help me to some extent. I was desperate then. To make a long story short, I wasted my time and was more frustrated. I vowed never to visit a psychologist. I lost trust in psychologists.

We need psycho-oncology/psychologist

I started cancer advocacy approximately four years ago. Initially, my advocacy focused on medical treatments like targeted therapy, immunotherapy, side effects, etc. Soon, I noticed that the patients' and caregivers' mental health issues are common and severe. I realized that we need help psychologically.

I noticed that many patients and caregivers, like me, don't give mental health problems high priority because we have such a fatal disease of lung cancer. We worry about our mortality, conditions, availability of treatments, side effects, loved ones' well-being, and financial toxicity, etc. Mental health, though, is important but is not an urgent problem. Thus, we suffer in silence, as I did.

I'm still hesitant to visit a psycho-oncologist

There are three obstacles for me to visiting a psycho-oncologist: 1) the stigma toward patients and caregivers, 2) the trust of psychologists, and 3) the unknown of the field of psycho-oncology. I'm strong enough to handle the stigma and seek mental support but after my experience with a psychologist after I was just diagnosed with lung cancer, finding a trustworthy psychologist is my concern.

I'm still not ready to visit a psycho-oncologist, but I talked to a future psychologist - my daughter - a clinical psychology Ph.D. student. In the past two years, when my daughter was doing her M.Sc. degree in Clinical Psychology, I talked with her about the mental health problems of many cancer patients and caregivers based on my observation. I especially talked about the trust issue between the clients and psychologists since it has been my main issue. I didn't trust the psychologists and had no intention of opening my wounds again.

I'm impressed that my baby girl is knowledgeable and professional as I talked to her about mental health problems. I found she is non-judgemental, supportive, and eclectic. But, more importantly, she made me feel that I was heard and understood. I couldn't help thinking that working with psychologists might not be bad if they are just like my daughter.

I learned a lot by becoming a Board member for CAPO

At the beginning of 2022, I was asked to be on the Canadian Association of Psychosocial Oncology (CAPO) board. I already knew the power of psycho-oncology at the time and wanted to learn more. So I accepted the request, and once a month, I spend at least one hour with the board members talking about the work of CAPO.

I attended CAPO/IPOS 2022 World Congress early this month in Toronto, Canada. When I finished the conference, I learned firstly the research of psycho-oncology is advanced significantly and has become a main branch of psychology. Secondly, there is a disconnect between psycho-oncological researchers and cancer patients and caregivers. Such a disconnection is similar to the one the patients and caregivers have experienced in medical oncology. Therefore, I hope that CAPO/IPOS can adapt some strategies in medical oncology to involve and engage the patients and caregivers in their psycho-oncological research to make it more relevant to patients and caregivers.

In one of the Plenary Sessions of CAPO/IPOS 2022, one speaker mentioned that the patient's mental health should be one of the items included in the annual physical check-up. This idea shook me. Indeed, I checked "Medical News Today", and mental health is nowhere to be seen. Throughout my seven-year lung cancer journey, I don't remember my oncologist ever asking me any mental health questions.2

After thoughts about psycho-oncology

We need psycho-oncology, which has advanced significantly. I think I’m regaining the trust of psycho-oncologists, and I'll visit them in time. But like medical oncology, psycho-oncology also has the same problem of involving and engaging patients and caregivers in psycho-oncological research. So we will have a lot of work to do.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The LungCancer.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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