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Most cancer survivors admit that a cancer diagnosis immediately turns their world upside down. Worry about treatment side effects, finances, family, work commitments, and the future can take over and lead to panic and ongoing stress.

According to Carol Diffendaffer, PMHP, PMSW, OSW-C, Oncology Social Worker at Regional West, the changing landscape of cancer patient care motivated the Commission on Cancer to develop new standards to directly address patients’ needs and concerns. With up to one third of cancer patients experiencing ongoing psychosocial distress throughout their cancer journey, the new standard ensures that cancer patients receive an extra layer of support when dealing with the stresses associated with a cancer diagnosis.

To address the challenge, Regional West’s Psychosocial Care Committee was initiated to work closely with the cancer program in identifying and addressing different kinds of psychosocial distress, including challenges with adjusting to illness, stresses associated with receiving radiation and chemotherapy, emotional needs, relationships and care giving, coping with pain, insomnia, and much more.

Implemented in 2012, the Psychosocial Care Committee works closely with the Cancer Care Team in identifying and addressing the psychosocial needs of cancer patients. Since patients meet with multiple providers and staff throughout the treatment process, committee members instituted a screening tool for measuring distress during the patient's initial Cancer Treatment Center visit. The Distress Thermometer, a single-item measure, asks respondents to rate their distress during the last week on an 11-point scale ranging from "no distress" (0) to "extreme distress" (10). The second part of the tool includes a list of 34 problems grouped into five categories (practical, family, emotional, spiritual/religious, and physical). By checking "yes" or "no," patients indicate which, if any, of the items have posed a problem for them in the past week. Health care professionals can then provide specific help, such as increased pain relief, financial counseling, etc.

Diffendaffer says that one of the tool's main benefits is that it allows patients to voice their concerns. She says that some people may be reluctant to discuss their concerns with staff they perceive to be too busy, not wanting to be seen as demanding or difficult. “Knowing what stresses are impacting a patient’s cancer journey helps those of us connected with his or her care get to the heart of where stress is coming from,” she says. “The screening tool allows us to provide the tools, resources, and options to best help our clients take control of and manage the issues that are negatively affecting their cancer journey.”