Cancer is not only a molecular disease

On World Cancer Day 2022, Molecular Oncology launched a writing competition for early-career researchers, to highlight the importance of effective communication of cancer research to a lay audience. Here we publish the entry that won the second prize.
Cancer is not only a molecular disease

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Cancer is not just a molecular disease – it is also a psychosocial one. Most people focus on the physical consequences of cancer and its treatment, such as vomiting or going bald from chemotherapy. Few realize that cancer patients also struggle with consequences that can’t be seen: anxiety, depression, fear of recurrence, fatigue, financial worries, insomnia, inability to resume work, etc. The psychological and social effects of cancer can be just as debilitating as the physical consequences. Moreover, these consequences affect not just the patients, but also their loved-ones who play the role of informal caregivers. Thus, research into the psychosocial aspects of cancer is just as important as biological research, so we can provide treat the patient as a whole person and not just the disease.

I work in the field of psycho-oncology and the aim of my research is to develop and test ways to support the psychosocial well-being of patients and caregivers. In order to do this, I first identify key problems and issues facing cancer patients and caregivers. Sometimes, other researchers may have already done this, so the first step in my research projects is to look for any previous studies in order to find out what is already known about a particular topic. This is called a literature review. If done systematically, this step will tell me what kind of research is needed next. 

For example, previous research has shown that many patients experience difficulties that require medical attention, but do not contact their doctor to receive help. Thus, my colleagues and I have developed an electronic questionnaire asking about any problems the patient may be facing. This is called a patient-reported outcome measure (PROM) and may be given to patients at regular intervals through their mobile phones. If the patient reports symptoms needing attention, such as increased pain or depressive symptoms, the patient’s nurse is alerted automatically and she can refer the patient to a specialist or psychologist. Receiving prompt support can prevent more serious problems and improve the quality of life of the patient. In a different study, I am testing a newly developed 6-week group program designed to help caregivers cope with the stress of having a spouse with cancer. If found to be effective, it can be offered to caregivers who need help in a difficult time. 

My research is important because psychosocial factors affect physical factors and potentially, even survival. For example, patients who suffer from depression have poorer treatment adherence, which may lead to a higher risk of dying. Results of my research may help ensure that patients and caregivers are supported in ways that can improve their ability to live their lives after a cancer diagnosis. My vision is that future cancer care includes a psychosocial component that is offered together with medical treatment. The psychosocial needs of cancer patients and caregivers need to be taken seriously since most of us will either become a patient at some point or have a loved-one who has cancer.

By Beverley Lim Høeg

Photo by Lauren Mancke on Unsplash 

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