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Shanghai Cancer Resource: Psycho-Oncology

Over the years, I have worked with many cancer patients and families as a Clinical Psychologist and have seen the benefits of emotional support and psychological management techniques. The field of psycho-oncology, founded in the 1980s, is developing to further help patients fighting cancer (and adjusting after treatment), as well to better understand the links between the psychosocial and physical aspects of disease.

What is psycho-oncology?

Psycho-oncology is a field of interdisciplinary study and practice at the intersection of lifestyle, psychology and oncology (cancer science).

Essentially, this medical specialty deals with the psychological and sociological issues of cancer by helping patients and their families deal with the physical, emotional and practical issues through the various stages. It also studies the relationships between psychosocial factors and disease, such as positive effects of a strong emotional support system on cancer’s progression.

Who can psycho-oncology help?

Cancer naturally causes feelings of vulnerability, fear and sadness. This psychological suffering of unpleasant emotions is termed distress. Working with a professional to deal with these feelings can soothe anxiety and stress, enabling both the patient and his support system to better cope with the disease.

Patients frequently state that they would like more resources for dealing with emotions such as worries about the future. For many people, working with a professional can help them take a more active role in treatment and increase feelings of control and hope. In some patients, distress can evolve into psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety and adjustment disorders. Patients with a history of emotional turmoil are especially vulnerable.

Family members are also treated in psycho-oncology, as a vital part of the support system. They may be dealing with anxiety, caregiver stress and their own adjustment. They can also have a profound effect on the patient’s well-being and ability to fight cancer.

Expats in Shanghai often choose to return to their home countries to undergo treatment. The newly diagnosed patient can benefit from talking through these decisions and getting emotional support while working out logistics. Cancer survivors may also need help after treatment, as they integrate their cancer experience into their life story and roles, while simultaneously dealing with the adjustments inherent to expat life in Shanghai.

Psycho-oncology is useful to address issues commonly faced by cancer patients and families at various stages, such as:

  • New diagnosis: feelings of fear and anxiety, adjustment and taking an active role in treatment, decision-making and practical concerns
  • Active treatment: dealing with side effects and emotions, pain management
  • Post-treatment: readjustment, managing checkups, goal and identity changes, integrating the experience into positive growth

Because each person’s experience is different, the psycho-oncologist assesses the needs of the individual and family for a personalized treatment plan, which can be adjusted as the situation and needs change.

In my next blog post, I will share more details of the treatment techniques used in psycho-oncology and the benefits. If you know someone who has been diagnosed with cancer or is returning to Shanghai after treatment, we invite you to share this Shanghai cancer resource. It is important for Shanghai cancer patients and their families to know they don’t have to fight cancer alone, and that emotional support is vital to the physical and overall healing process.

Paula van Grieken Ferrer is a Clinical Pyschologist providing services at Body & Soul’s Downtown, Hongmei Road and Century Park clinics. She is pursuing an additional specialized degree in Psycho-Oncology.

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