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Talking therapy to help cancer survivors cope

Talking therapy

Helping cancer survivors handle the emotional and psychological fallout is the goal of a £2.5m research project to develop and test a new specialised talking-based therapy.

People who survive cancer can be in good physical health or long-term remission, but the impact of cancer and treatment can be difficult to deal with.

The researchers hope their new therapy will transform aftercare for people living with and beyond cancer.

Brunel University London’s Dr Gail Eva will drive part of the therapy that focuses on ‘vocational rehabilitation’. This might mean going back to the same job, doing the same job but with altered times or responsibilities, or finding a different job.

“We know that work is important to people,” she said. “And that people who have had cancer are more likely to be unemployed than the general population.”

Her team will use talking therapy to support people who have finished treatment but still struggle with the practical and emotional upheaval. “This can help people identify their values and parts of their lives that are most important to them,” said Dr Eva, who works in Ageing Studies. “Where this includes remaining in or returning to work, the therapists will have the skills to support people to do this. This could include assessing aspects of their job they find difficult͟͟, whether it’s the physical work environment or relationships and helping  the person identify potential solutions.”

Funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), the overarching  SUrvivors' Rehabilitation Evaluation after CANcer (SURECAN) project is led by Queen Mary University of London, Barts Health NHS Trust and King's College London.

Research suggests a talking treatment like cognitive behavioural therapy and exercise can help improve cancer survivors’ quality of life. SURECAN will weigh up a talking therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which puts patients’ life values at the heart of the therapy. It helps patients accept what they cannot change (for example, the fact that the cancer might recur) and work to goals they want to achieve – for instance, becoming closer to loved ones.

“There are some two million cancer survivors in the UK, which is a great success story,” said co-chief investigator Professor Steph Taylor at Queen Mary. “But about a third report poor quality of life or well-being. This is because of problems such as fatigue, fear of recurrence, and concerns about returning to work.”

The project aims to conduct a full trial of 344 participants at three centres in London and Sheffield to determine whether the talking-based therapy improves quality of life more than usual aftercare. If it works and is cost-effective, it could be used across the NHS.

61-year-old breast cancer patient Adrienne Morgan from Clerkenwell, London, is advising on the project. She said: “When I was diagnosed, my husband and I were very fortunate to have counselling.  We were helped through our anger and grief, to accept our ‘new normal.’

“Had we had this counselling earlier, after my initial treatment, it would have helped enormously in adapting to that new normal, and I may have even been able to continue working in the job that I loved.”

Reported by:

Hayley Jarvis, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268176