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“A lot of questions, but very few answers:” The mental strain of a cancer diagnosis

The University of Michigan's Comprehensive Cancer Center
University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center in Ann Arbor, MI.

The phrase "you have cancer" might be one of the most terrifying collections of words a person can hear in their lifetime.

Many readers have heard that phrase spoken to them, or  have had a close friend or relative experience it. The level of anxiety and other psychological issues that accompany a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming for many people.

To help combat that, there is now a subspecialty of oncology. It’s called psycho-oncology.
Stateside spoke with Dr. Michelle Riba, associate director of the University of Michigan Depression Center, and Bill Howe, a cancer survivor who found the psycho-oncology treatment helpful.

The University of Michigan's Comprehensive Cancer Center has an embedded psychiatric clinic in the center. According to Riba, all patients who receive care there have access to the clinic.

While screening for depression and other psychological distress has been researched as far back as the 1970s, the practice is becoming a norm in cancer centers like the one at the University of Michigan.

"The American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network have developed guidelines for patients in the United States. At our cancer center, we regularly screen for distress," Riba said. "And then based on that information in those guidelines, patients are triaged further."

Howe suffered from depression after being diagnosed with prostate cancer.

"I think there's a two-pronged approach," Howe said. "One is the medications for depression, which are very good today. And secondly, the psychotherapy. Being able to combine the medication with the counseling that you receive.

"I often say that it's finding a path out. And [Dr. Riba] was so good at finding a path out for me."   

Listen to the full interview above to hear more about Howe's story of fighting cancer, and how psycho-oncology was helpful. 

Minding Michigan is Stateside's ongoing series that examines mental health issues in our state.

*This story was originally broadcast on May 9, 2017.

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