By Natasha Buchanan Lunsford, PhD

Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and cognitive difficulties are just some mental health concerns that can affect cancer survivors: those living with, through, and beyond a cancer diagnosis. As many as three out of every four cancer survivors can experience acute or chronic symptoms of psychological distress, which can negatively affect quality of life, engagement in follow-up care, and health outcomes.

To effectively detect and manage those concerns, the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer recommends distress screening for patients with cancer in all clinical settings and requires it in its accredited facilities. Distress screening can help medical providers determine and discuss patients’ concerns and derive plans for appropriate management and referral to mental health specialists.

Barriers to Providing Mental Health Care

Although specialists can be integral to patient care teams, knowledge and practice gaps exist in caring for the mental healthcare needs of cancer survivors. Preliminary research findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that oncologists, primary care providers, and nurses report limited knowledge of distress screening guidelines, limited mental health discussions with their patients, and poor referral rates to psychosocial treatment when indicated.

Additionally, research showed that one-third or fewer cancer survivors reported talking to their doctor about their psychosocial concerns, and fewer received treatment for distress.

How Healthcare Provider Training Can Help

Supporting healthcare providers treating cancer survivors through increased education is an important way to improve mental health management and subsequent health outcomes. CDC partnered with the National Association for Chronic Disease Directors and Kognito to develop the innovative, interactive, free Provider Education for Mental Health Care of Cancer Survivors Training. It was created to improve healthcare providers’ knowledge and communication about cancer survivors’ mental health care and promote recommended distress screening.

As a part of the training, medical providers engage in role play conversations with simulated cancer survivors to identify mental health concerns through distress screening, try different approaches to discussing concerns, and make appropriate referrals when indicated. The training also allows providers to get personalized feedback and gain the confidence and skills to lead similar conversations in real life.

Although providing whole-person care to patients can be challenging because of competing demands, cancer survivors must receive high-quality, recommended care for mental health concerns. Educating medical providers on distress screening guidelines and methods for mental health management can help to ensure that cancer survivors are living happier, healthier lives.