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​Mental health treatment available to those with cancer and their loved ones

By Francie Williamson, Communications Coordinator, Department of Psychiatry

After finishing her first round of treatment at UI Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, Sarah Gottlieb says she started experiencing depression for the first time in her life.

“I think that the physical burden of the chemotherapy plus the mental and emotional burden got to me,” says Gottlieb, a former English tutor whose stage 4 ovarian cancer was diagnosed in March 2018. “It was kind of a desperation, and it was different from just feeling sad or down.”

Gottlieb connected with Arwa Aburizik, MD, MS, and Holden’s Behavioral Oncology Clinic. In addition to individualized therapy and antidepressants, Aburizik recommended group therapy with other patients with cancer.

“I had never done anything like that before,” Gottlieb says. “But it just seemed really comfortable and welcoming and useful.”

Gottlieb says she was having trouble coping with having cancer and trying to explain it to her then 14-year-old son, and it was nice to have a place to talk about it.

“I can tell a lot of people that come to the group, especially the first time, they’re surprised. They’re really grateful,” Gottlieb says. “It’s not like we talk about cancer, cancer, cancer all the time. It’s more, like, ‘Why are we here?’ ‘What are we doing and what makes us happy?’ ‘How do reframe things?’ And we talk about healthy coping skills and reassure each other.”

The Psychosocial Oncology Program

Aburizik, an internist and psychiatrist who completed her residency and fellowship at UI Hospitals & Clinics, is the director of the Psychosocial Oncology Program.

“Cancer psychosocial services predated our Behavioral Oncology Clinic and program. Social workers, nurses, and oncologists have always strived to address emotional needs, social concerns, and financial issues,” Aburizik says.

In 2016, Aburizik was joined by mental health nurse practitioner Jessie Alex, ARNP. The program also later welcomed three therapists, Miranda Maday, MSW, LISW; Brittany McGraw, LISW, ACSW; and Myleena Grenis, LISW, CADC.

Aburizik and Alex see patients with cancer for diagnostic evaluations, to address their needs with medications or behavioral interventions for their psychiatric needs, or to refer them to neuropsychologists, rehabilitation, nutrition, palliative care, or individual and group-based therapy.

The importance of psycho-oncology

Aburizik says those diagnosed with cancer are living longer than ever before.

“For cancer survivors to be re-integrated into their family and work lives after and during treatment, a comprehensive approach to their care has to focus on their psychosocial well-being and growth,” she says.

Depression occurs in about 10 percent of the population, Aburizik says, but among those with cancer, it can occur at rates that are double or even quadruple that amount.

“People dismiss it thinking it’s situational,” Aburizik says. “The answer to that is that depression and anxiety are different from sadness and fear. They involve a decline in one’s psychosocial functioning, ability to work, connect with others, and live a full life.

Those with cancer aren’t the only ones who can benefit. Family and friends of patients can access individualized therapy as well as groups specifically geared toward their issues.

Help amid the pandemic

Susan Dunek, a retired community college dean whose stage four insular thyroid cancer was diagnosed in December 2016, says although she had been seeing Aburizik one-on-one for a while, she never took part in group therapy until after the pandemic hit. Once she heard therapy groups were going to be offered virtually, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It has been valuable for me for a couple of reasons,” Dunek says of group therapy. “The obvious is there’s a chance to talk to people about your disease state, knowing everyone in the audience is going to be understanding of that.

Dunek believes behavioral oncology should be part of everyone’s care plan.

 “It has helped me with my outlook,” Dunek says. “It has helped me with some of my behaviors. It has helped me explain things to people I know and care about. I think it’s added value to my life.”

Monday, May 24, 2021