Talking About Stress for Patients with Cancer: 3 Tips

Aha Media Group writer Teri Cettina switched roles, from health copywriter to patient, when she was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. 

Many health systems seem to shy away from creating and promoting content about stress management and mental health. They shouldn’t. Patients who receive emotional as well as physical care often heal faster and have a more positive healthcare experience.

Cancer doesn’t just affect patients’ physical bodies. It also takes a huge toll on patients’ emotional health. A cancer diagnosis can lead patients to experience intensely stressful feelings about almost every aspect of their lives, including:

  • Work and financial challenges
  • Physical changes, such as weight and hair loss and increased pain
  • Concerns about sharing their diagnosis with loved ones and children
  • Anxiety related to ongoing scans, tests and treatment
  • Dealing with end-of-life issues

Effective Cancer Stress Support = More Satisfied Patients

Communicating better with patients about their cancer-related stress is worth the effort. Patients who feel they are getting strong emotional support from their healthcare team often:

  • Heal more quickly
  • Spend less time in the hospital
  • Adhere more closely to their treatment plans
  • Express greater satisfaction about your facility’s care

Here are 3ways to approach cancer-related stress issues with sensitivity and empathy.

#1: Focus on Stress — Not “Mental Health” or “Psychological Support”

As a cancer patient who fought the idea of talking to a social worker or chaplain, I’ll give it to you straight: “Stress relief” is a much easier term to swallow than “psychological support” or “palliative care.” Those terms still have stigmas attached to them. Patients may feel they are weak or damaged if they take advantage of these services.

Using real-world language will help your team get a better patient response. Try something like this: “Learning you have cancer is incredibly stressful. Our social workers and chaplains are specially trained to help you get the answers you need to issues that are worrying you.”

Download our free eBook Writing About Difficult Healthcare Topics for tips on writing about palliative care and other sensitive topics.

#2: Explain Clearly How Stress-Management Services Work

Many patients have no idea what to expect from social worker/chaplain appointments or hospital support group meetings. That “not knowing” may keep patients from participating. Lay out the details for them.

For social work or chaplain appointments, answer these questions in your content:

  • How do appointments work? Can patients meet casually with a staff member while they are undergoing chemo? Do they need to make advance, private appointments? Or can they choose from both options?
  • What is the role of support staff? Do social workers and chaplains focus only on deep, emotional issues? Or can they simply be attentive problem-solvers for patients who need an extra ear?
  • Do patients need to commit to ongoing appointments? Can patients see a social worker or chaplain just once, then decide if they’d like to continue?
  • What types of appointments are available? Will patients meet with staff members in person, or do you offer telephone/virtual meeting options?

For support group services, your patients may want to know:

  • Do group members all have a particular type of cancer? Or is this a group for people with all types of cancer diagnoses?
  • Are meetings run by professionals? Or do patients determine what will be discussed?
  • How sick are the patients who attend these group meetings? And what kinds of topics do they typically discuss?
  • Do you offer both in-person and virtual groups? Where and when are meetings held?

#3: Train Your Staff to Make Timely, Empathetic Referrals

While patients can register online or make their own appointments for counseling services, they often don’t. Patients may feel overwhelmed and not want to deal with arranging yet another appointment.

Often, it’s a member of the healthcare team who notices that a patient might benefit from counseling. With patient permission, they contact your facility’s social work or chaplain’s office. A counseling expert then calls or visits the patient during treatment.

Chemotherapy nurses are often the first to notice that a patient is struggling with cancer-related stress. (Patients confide a lot in nurses when they’re sitting in infusion chairs and beds!) Physician assistants may also notice during routine appointments that a patient is distressed.

Train your staff, including nurses and PAs, to talk to patients about counseling services. They should:

  • Empathetically introduce the idea of talking to a social worker or chaplain or attending a support group
  • Focus on the term “stress related to having a cancer diagnosis” rather than “mental health support” or “psychological counseling”
  • Make sure patients know that the service is free and never required — just helpful

With a little empathy, a savvy communication plan and an effective staff referral system, you can offer the stress relief your patients need. If Aha Media can help with this process, let us know.

About Teri Cettina

Teri Cettina

Teri Cettina has written about financial issues, parenting and health for more than 20 years. She deftly handles both consumer-oriented and business-to-business content. Her byline has appeared in major newsstand magazines, including Real Simple, Reader’s Digest, Parents and Working Mother. Teri also creates strategic, d... More >