SCCA employs UW model to tend to cancer patients’ emotions

News Archive

SCCA employs UW model to tend to cancer patients’ emotions

'Treating your soul' is aim of program led by UW Medicine psychiatrist
Kate Wilburn

There is no universal response to a cancer diagnosis. Whether a patient is old, young, stage I or stage IV, everyone has a unique emotional reaction. Unfortunately, many patients are never able to sit down with someone who understands their struggle and work through these emotions.

“Nobody’s treating your soul,” said Ruth Kaminski, a survivor of breast cancer.

The Integrated Psychosocial Oncology Program at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance is one of the few cancer treatment programs nationwide that integrates mental health care into patients’ treatment. The SCCA comprises research teams and cancer specialists from UW Medicine, Fred Hutch and Seattle Children's. 

Dr. Jesse Fann leads a program centered on cancer patients' psychological health.
picture of Dr. Jesse Fann, UW Medicine psychiatrist

The program, led by UW Medicine psychiatrist Dr. Jesse Fann, entails a Collaborative Care model developed at the UW: A social worker in the oncology clinic works with providers in oncology, primary care, and psychosocial health to meet each patient’s individual needs. The mental health care is conveniently available at SCCA. 

For Kaminski, being diagnosed with cancer led to a struggle with depression and anxiety that steadily spiraled downward. In order to protect her family and friends, she kept up a brave front. But without someone to speak freely with who understood her fears and frustrations, the burden became too heavy to bear.

“I was the clown, laughing and joking with everyone at my treatments and appointments, but crying in the shower every morning and crying after my treatment until my husband came home and I put on a happy face again. I didn’t know I was in trouble until I was really, really in trouble.”

Deborah Przekop’s experience was different. When she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she knew she would need mental health care because she had dealt with depression throughout her life. Her experience prompted her to seek help immediately after her diagnosis. 

Nearly half of all patients diagnosed with cancer experience significant emotional or psychological distress, yet research shows that the majority do not receive adequate care, if any.

“Emotional and psychological distress can have major adverse effects, not just on quality of life but on other symptoms,” Fann said. “For example, people who are depressed experience greater pain, greater fatigue, more sleep problems. Unfortunately, many people don’t seek help due to a perceived stigma or fear that doing so will mean they are weak or giving up.” 

Courtesy of Deborah Przekop
“Dr. Fann’s program is number one on my list to tell new patients about,” said Deborah Przekop, a cancer survivor who volunteers at SCCA.
picture of cancer survivor Deborah Przekop

For both Przekop and Kaminski, mental health treatment was vital to their overall care. “A mental health specialist should be part of every cancer patient’s initial team,” Kaminski said. “They should have help before they even know they need it.”

Fann and his colleagues in the program help patients work through varied and complex emotions. Hopelessness and fear of stigma, for instance, can lead patients to put off follow-ups and treatment referrals.  

The Collaborative Care model has been studied extensively at the UW and is increasingly implemented throughout the United States and internationally. Research shows it is highly effective in treating depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. The SCCA is the first to implement the model in a cancer-treatment setting.

“A unique feature of our program is our ability to adapt to the needs of our patients and the changing healthcare landscape in a very efficient way,” Fann said. “Our team meets regularly to share ideas and to make sure that every patient is getting the help that they need while going through their cancer treatment.” 

Przekop volunteers at SCCA and is working to ensure patients are immediately aware of the mental health care option. 

“Dr. Fann’s program is number one on my list to tell new patients about,” she said.