Building a Better Health Service


Psycho-oncology support for cancer patients

Dr Helen Greally,  Clinical Lead for Psycho-Oncology

Dr Helen Greally,  Clinical Lead for Psycho-Oncology

Cancer is not just a physical disease which requires medical treatment but also has a significant psychological impact on both the patient and the family.

Dr Helen Greally has been appointed in the unique role of Clinical Lead for Psycho-Oncology, taking up her position in December 2018. She has been tasked with creating the psychological support services nationally for cancer patients and their families. It is one of the key recommendations of the National Cancer Strategy.

Ireland is one of the first countries to appoint a Clinical Lead in Psycho-Oncology.

The National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP) is progressing the development of psycho-oncology services in Ireland, working with all stakeholders in acute, community and voluntary sectors.

“Psycho-oncology is the treatment of psychological distress caused by cancer in the patient, their relatives or carers,” explained Helen.

“It also addresses the psychological, behavioural, medical and social factors that may influence the disease process and the patients’ experience of their care.”

She highlighted that by acknowledging that psychological support is an integral part of the services for cancer patients, assessing for distress when a diagnosis is made becomes a routine part of what occurs.

“Accepting that cancer causes psychological distress is a healthy thing and we know that seeking help lessens the burden. We must realise that cancer is an abnormal life event that happens to normal people and that struggling to adjust even after treatment is finished is completely normal,” she added.

She said that although people are medically well treated for cancer, there was a gap in addressing the psychological effects on the patient both during and after the treatment.

“Having cancer and surviving cancer can take a massive toll on people’s psychology. There is often the fear of recurrence of the disease and it can become debilitating, taking over your life. It is vital that the supports are there to help people continue on with normal life,” said the Psycho-Oncology Clinical Lead.

“One of the myths around cancer is that when the treatment is over, you are better. Thankfully, a lot of people cope well with cancer and make a good recovery, but we help people to live with the uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis and the impact this has on their lives.”

She explained that there are three strands to the care services.

“The first is to provide people with good information and advice about the services available and to educate them about what to expect. The next is to help them to be pro-active in the self-management of the illness. It is very important that people are able to feel they can take control of the illness,” said Helen.

“The final strand would be in the provision of counselling in either an individual or group setting. We use cognitive behavioural therapy to help them change the way they are thinking about the cancer and challenge the more negative thoughts. We use interventions like mindfulness to try to get people to live in the present moment, to focus on how they are today and to stop them going into the future. We try to get them to connect their body and mind in the present.”

Support services are also in place for family members and carers.

“The effect of a cancer diagnosis is huge. Caring for someone you love who has cancer can be very demanding and takes a massive toll on people. It is important that we reach out and support these family members and carers too,” said Helen.

There are currently eight designated cancer centres across Ireland, with children’s cancer treatment concentrated in Crumlin Hospital.  Each has its  own cancer support service. In total, there are 42 cancer support centres nationally, some more well established than others.

Helen said it was her aim to create a comprehensive cancer support network across the county so people did not have to travel far from home to avail of it.

“There are gaps around the country in terms of support services but we are endeavouring to create a comprehensive and co-ordinated approach across the country. Whether you are in Belmullet or Meath, we want there to be psycho-oncology supports near to you if you need it,” she added.