Easing the cancer journey
Markey’s experienced Psych-Oncology team helps patients navigate the stresses accompanying a cancer diagnosis.
When Mary Miller received her cancer diagnosis in August 2020, she was in shock and scared. Other than anemia and shortness of breath, she felt healthy. Her diagnosis brought not only a physical toll, but a mental one as well. At the UK Markey Cancer Center, she received both treatment for the cancer and support for her emotional well-being.
Miller had Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia, a rare type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She started a chemotherapy regimen under the guidance of oncologist Dr. Gregory Monohan in January 2021 and finished six months later.
But her medical struggles continued. She was hospitalized with diverticulitis shortly after finishing chemo. Then in September 2021, Miller contracted COVID-19, which put her back in the hospital. A few weeks later, she began experiencing symptoms of long COVID, and the recovery took a while.
Reaching out for help
It was a lot to handle, and Miller knew she needed help. “You can imagine the stress at that point,” she said. “Not only was my body going through it, but my mental health was taking a hit, too. In addition to the physical symptoms of a COVID infection, the isolation you experience having to be more careful than most people because of my immunocompromised state — it can become overwhelming.”
“It is tough going through this, and while you can talk to friends and family, they don’t always get it. And there are other times that it just feels like your friends don’t want to really hear the nitty-gritty, the bad stuff. To have somebody you can call any time and lay that out makes a big difference.”
Miller wanted counseling services from someone who understood her particular needs as a cancer patient. “I really wanted someone who works with cancer patients because when you talk with them about different situations, they understand,” she said. “Another counselor may know some aspects, but not to the depth and nuance that someone who works exclusively with cancer patients would know.”
A wide range of support
For Miller, the answer was right here at Markey. The Markey Psych-Oncology Program provides counseling and other vital services to help cancer patients deal with the many stresses that can come with a diagnosis. Family responsibilities, work, bills — none of that goes away when someone has cancer. Instead, it can all get harder, especially when you add on challenges with insurance, transportation and the costs of treatment. And all while not feeling well and worrying about your health and future.
The program helps people manage the physical, emotional, spiritual and practical hurdles of a cancer journey. The 12-member team includes counselors, social workers, dietitians and a financial counselor with specialized training and experience supporting cancer patients.
“Cancer affects everything,” said Joan Scales, supervisor of Markey’s Psych-Oncology program. “There can be grief, loss of employment, inability to take part in favorite activities and a change in relationships. We really try to help our patients through that process by offering counseling support.”
Someone to rely on
For Miller, it was a relief to share her feelings with someone who understood the challenges she faced. Scales was there for her on hard days and when she needed more practical help.
“It is tough going through this, and while you can talk to friends and family, they don’t always get it,” Miller said. “And there are other times that it just feels like your friends don’t want to really hear the nitty-gritty, the bad stuff. To have somebody you can call any time and lay that out makes a big difference.”
The team addresses a wide variety of issues cancer patients may deal with, including hair loss and other physical changes, pain, loss of libido, transportation challenges and much more. Dietitians also help patients with strategies to improve nutrition, combat weight loss, manage tube feedings and address other concerns.
More than half of Markey patients travel more than 25 miles for one treatment. Many come every day or every week. Transportation hurdles can impact a patient’s outcomes and prevent them from getting timely treatment. The program connects patients with the resources to help them manage financial strains.
The Psych-Oncology team offers counseling and support to empower and encourage caregivers who also endure the cancer experience side-by-side with their loved ones. “They’re living this almost as much as our patients are,” Scales said. “It’s scary and unsettling to see your loved one going through this.”
It may not always be an easy job, but Scales said the work the team does is rewarding. “This job means so much to every single person who puts in the hours to make a difference in our patients’ lives,” she said. “Our patients become our family and we take great pride in helping them through this challenging journey.”