Psychology students team up with Leukemia & Lymphoma Society to present ways to 'live well beyond cancer'

by Pamela Young, Published October 05, 2012

When a person develops cancer, their entire world revolves around the illness.  But what happens once a patient completes chemotherapy or radiation?

A program, "Living Well Beyond Cancer: Survivorship Strategies," offered at Eastern Michigan University, tackled the issue of 'what next' when treatment is finished.

More than 130 health care professionals, cancer survivors and their family members attended the event.

"Most programs for cancer survivors focus on medical treatment, so this was brand new," said Jan Miller, patient services manager for the Michigan Chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. "Although patients seek tools to manage their lives as survivors after their surgery, chemotherapy or radiation, when it comes to the psycho-social aspects of their lives, they are usually are on their own.

"The physician will say, 'you're back to normal, but what do you do after that, when you are still dealing with lingering effects?"

The psycho-social needs of survivors who have completed treatment are often not fully addressed by their medical caregivers, according to Miller.

To address these needs, the Society collaborated with Flora Hoodin, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at Eastern Michigan University, along with several EMU clinical psychology graduate students, to reach out to health care professionals and survivors.

Said Hoodin, "This was a unique opportunity for academia to collaborate with an organization that supports cancer patients and their families."

Hoodin's research specializes in psychological factors affecting adjustment, psychological well-being, quality of life and outcomes after bone marrow or stem cell transplants.

After brainstorming with Miller, Hoodin and her graduate students offered to help develop a survivorship conference, which Eastern Michigan University hosted at the Student Center.

During the event, Hoodin and her students presented interactive workshops addressing survivors' psychological and social needs, and made recommendations based on scientific research that would be helpful to both survivors and healthcare providers.

Hoodin opened the conference with a keynote address about putting 'quality' into one's quality of life.  She pointed out that the ideal starting point for survivors would be to look into their hearts to see what is important, and to strive to make cancer a part - not the center - of their lives. She offered techniques to create what she calls "a rich and meaningful 'new normal' life." Attendees also learned strategies to help clarify values and to use their energy for what matters most. 

Jillian Carey, a clinical psychology doctoral student, spoke on how to keep relationships strong. Carey noted that every relationship changes with time, especially when someone is recovering from cancer.  She described practical ways survivors, caregivers and family members could improve communication and support one another.

Bethany Gourley, a clinical psychology doctoral student, offered helpful tips on what patients call "chemobrain."Chemobrain refers to mild cognitive impairments, which may occur when cancer or its treatment affects a person's concentration, thinking and memory.

It's difficult to study, Gourley said, because the changes are subtle and it's not uncommon for everyone, cancer patient or not, to have memory lapses or mental slip-ups.

Gourley offered compensation strategies such as simplifying routines, and explained how to build an action plan to deal effectively with the unique challenges facing survivors with chemobrain.

Annette Richard, a clinical psychology doctoral student, and Stephanie Proudfoot, a clinical psychology master's student, addressed issues surrounding stress and anxiety which can take a toll on bodies.

Richard and Proudfoot demonstrated several relaxation exercises that the audience then practiced. They also instructed participants in mindfulness techniques, such as attending to the present moment and letting go of judgmental thoughts.

Richard and Proudfoot pointed to some scientific evidence that practicing mindfulness can effectively relieve psychological and physiological symptoms of stress, particularly when used regularly. 

"Both the University and the community benefit by this type of partnering," Hoodin said. "We all learn from one another. An added bonus is this collaboration puts our students on the cutting edge of our profession."

Clinical psychology is now being recognized as a 'health profession' shown to enhance the well-being and even in some cases, the outcomes of medical patients, she added. Its efficacy and cost-effectiveness have led to a new paradigm in which psychologists are being called upon to work in 'integrated care' alongside the medical providers in primary care as well as specialty care settings.

The conference was sponsored by The Michigan Chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Eastern Michigan's psychology department, Genetech BioOncology and the Michigan Society of Hematology and Oncology.

Pamela Young

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