Psychosocial Oncology changing cancer treatment

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - "You have cancer," just three words with the power to change everything.

"Once the doctor says the C word, the patient's life isn't their own. It's go here, take this test, take this treatment," said Dr. Joel Marcus.

"That's all you think about is the big C. Every three months I go in for a PET scan. I work myself into a frenzy four weeks before I get there because I'm so scared of what he's going to say," explained Judy, a cancer patient who did not want to be identified.

Now 64 years old, Judy was diagnosed with lung cancer three years ago.  She had 32 radiation treatments, and 16 rounds of chemo. Then, last April she found out the cancer was back.

"It's a storm. It's a rocky storm. The anxiety, the not knowing what's going to happen next," she said.

After she relapsed, Judy began seeing a psychological oncologist at Ochsner, Dr. Joel Marcus.

"We're allowing people to appreciate a better quality of life," said Marcus. "It's the care of the whole person."

Over the years, oncologists have made great advances in fighting cancer.  However, in the last decade, doctors realized there was something missing in the treatment.

"We were keeping people alive but we weren't really dealing with the emotional, mental health, spiritual aspect of the disease," explained Marcus.

As a result, psychological oncology was born to help patients and their families cope with the disease, the side effects of treatment and even death.

"People don't like to talk about death, they don't like to acknowledge the, for a lack of a better term, existential crisis, of what has my life been about?" explained Marcus who is a clinical psychologist. "That's what I try to do is help people understand what their life has been about."

"He helps me do one day at a time, and that's how you're supposed to live," said Judy. "It's easier to just curl up in a fetal position and just let it happen. I'm not going to do that."

Marcus says the biggest challenge in his field is getting people to embrace the idea of palliative care from the beginning of a cancer patient's treatment.  The psychologist says palliative care is often associated with hospice care, but that it encompasses much more than that.

"Yes, we're getting so much better at treating, but we have to get better at that cascade of events that occurs afterward," he said.  "We don't tell them that this treatment may devastate you financially. For women, it may devastate your body image the way you view yourself as a mother, as a wife."

A new study published by his colleagues show those patients who received palliative care or psychosocial counseling early in a treatment saw a better quality of life, and in some cases increased life expectancy.

Psychosocial Oncology is a fairly small field with only around 400 dedicated doctors nationwide.  

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