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What is Psychosocial Oncology?

Psychosocial oncology is a cancer specialty that addresses the variety of psychological, behavioral, emotional and social issues that arise for cancer patients and their loved ones. Cancer can cause significant distress for patients and their families. The type of distress varies based on each individual and family experience. It may be influenced by a variety of factors — including the type of cancer, where patients are in their life, and how they tend to cope with challenging situations. In the broadest terms, there are two psychological dimensions of cancer. The first is the emotional response patients and families have to cancer. The second are the emotional, behavioral, and psychosocial difficulties that influence living with cancer. Psychosocial oncology is the specialty that addresses all of these dimensions.

A field with many names:

This field has several names. It can be called Psychosocial oncology, or psycho-oncology, or psychiatric oncology, or simply supportive care services. All of these refer to the same clinical specialty that addresses the emotional and psychosocial concerns associated with cancer.

What types of providers work in Psychosocial Oncology?

Psychosocial oncology is a field that includes providers from a variety of backgrounds. They include social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, mental health counselors, and chaplains. Regardless of their specific degree, all Psychosocial oncology providers are dedicated professionals who are trained to address the many issues faced by patients with cancer and by their loved ones.

Why did my oncologist refer me to Psychosocial oncology?

There are many possible reasons why your oncologist referred you to Psychosocial oncology. It could be that you are having difficulty coping with some aspect of living with cancer or your cancer treatment or life following cancer treatment. For example, maybe you are feeling more depressed or anxious since your cancer diagnosis, which is very common. It could be that you have a psychiatric diagnosis that could be worsened by the cancer or its treatment. For example, maybe you had been treated for major depression in the past, and since starting your cancer treatment, your anti-depressants are no longer working. It could also be that the cancer or cancer treatment is impacting your mood or behavior in ways that worry you and your medical provider. Or it could be that you need social support in managing complicated life circumstances or in making important decisions. Ultimately, it is important to talk with your oncologist to better understand the referral and to keep your oncologist informed about your progress in Psychosocial Oncology. This is an important aspect of whole patient care.

What can I expect on my first visit?

Like most medical visits, on your first visit, you can expect to complete an assessment or initial interview. Some of this paperwork will be familiar, including personal and insurance information. Additional questions may focus on your mood or anxiety or other symptoms and behaviors. You will have a chance to talk about the concerns that brought you to the Psychosocial oncology clinic and will be involved in determining the next steps in your care. This may include additional visits for further evaluation, visits for psychotherapy, and/or medications to address your symptoms (if seeing a psychiatrist or nurse practitioner).

*Developed by Guy Maytal, MD & The APOS Professional Education Committee | June 2020