Psycho-oncology curriculum gives tools for treating cancer patients, clinicians

Dr. Janeta Tansey

The fifth and final session in a new Integrated Behavioral Oncology curriculum designed by Arwa Aburizik, MD, MS, will occur on Tuesday, February 8, from 8 to 9 am. Titled “Ethical Questions in Oncology,” this session will be led by Janeta Tansey, MD, PhD, former clinical faculty member in the UI Department of Psychiatry and bioethicist in Palliative and Supportive Care, now currently in private practice locally. Tansey will address in part the “moral distress and injury in the face of futility” in delivering medical care, as well as questions around treating mental disorders and the indigent.

Dr. Arwa Aburizik

Aburizik’s monthly sessions in the Psycho-Oncology Curriculum began upon her recruitment in Hematology Oncology, and have evolved over the years. In the advent of the pandemic, she revised her psycho-oncology curriculum to highlight a self-care focus for medical oncology fellows. The sessions put equal emphasis on the mental health of people living with cancer as much as the mental health of those who are treating them. Topics range from depression and demoralization to grief and loss. In the same week that educators discuss traditional pharmaceuticals for depression in cancer, they can also touch upon the evidence around novel and controversial therapeutics for depression such as Psilocybin and Ketamine, and then pivot to recognizing signs of burnout or depression in themselves and their colleagues. A different session will expound on grief, loss, and imparting hope without denial in the cancer patient, but then weave in a discussion of all the ambiguous losses and disenfranchised grief in medical providers. “We have to take care of each other, and not just our patients. Our grief is the elephant in the room and one of the big disparities in healthcare delivery,” Aburizik said.

Aburizik has been addressing mental health in the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center (HCCC) for years. The director of the behavioral oncology clinic, she has launched initiatives such as group therapy sessions that not only improve the outlook of someone with cancer, but also their caregivers in dedicated therapy groups. With this new curriculum, Aburizik hopes to help train not only the fellows, but other clinicians in the cancer center in how to treat the “whole person” and provide them with a space and the tools to manage their own wellness.

This dual approach is important, Aburizik said, for two reasons. “Psychoeducation is indeed a psychosocial and therapeutic intervention for emotional stressors.” And in the context of an educational session, the sessions are respectful of fellows’ privacy and choice. “Encouraging reflection and introspection without hemorrhaging feelings is a balance we have to maintain.” The small-group setting, between 8 and 10 attendees at most sessions, makes it possible to “get educated, get curious, and heal.”

Aburizik is looking forward to the next and final session of this series with Tansey. She says that it will have a virtue ethics focus, utilizing positive psychology to support courage, humanity, and wisdom to navigate moral dilemmas, and to help them approach care with an explicit moral and ethical lens. Aburizik also cites the input and involvement of many collaborators in the previous sessions, including Brittany McGraw, LISW; Miranda Maday, LISW; Martin Kivlighan, PhD; and Kristin Caraher, PhD.

After this series concludes, Aburizik will review evaluations and adjust. “We will have learned a lot. And hopefully we will have some feedback and testimonials.” She plans to expand the sessions to HCCC members in Surgery, Radiation Oncology, and Pediatric Oncology. “This is our mission in psychosocial oncology and in academia in general. As authentic mental health providers, humans and friends, we hope to contribute to each others’ wellness.”

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