Fellowship focuses on providing future psychologists specialized training in cancer care
August 29, 2019
By Leilana McKindra
Even with the best prognosis, a cancer diagnosis takes a heavy physical and emotional toll on patients and their families. With a clinical health psychology fellowship emphasizing psychological care for people with cancer, the University of Kansas Medical Center's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and The University of Kansas Cancer Center are on the forefront of a national trend of paying closer attention to that all-important mind-body connection.
"I think more and more both psychologists and medical providers are seeing how we can improve overall care when we're working together," said Meagan Dwyer, Ph.D., who directs the fellowship and leads a team of specially trained psychologists at the KU Cancer Center. "Our brains reside inside our bodies. It's kind of meaningless to say mental health versus physical health because it's really our overall health. Treating it as such is a good thing."
The postdoctoral training program recently became the 10th clinical health psychology fellowship in the nation to earn accreditation from the American Psychological Association. It also is one of two fellowships in the U.S. with an oncology focus to gain APA accreditation, joining the Mayo Clinic.
"We are very excited that our university is one of only two in the nation offering this program," said Roy Jensen, director of the KU Cancer Center. "It speaks to the commitment The KU Cancer Center and our entire university has to elevating cancer care for our region and the nation."
The fellowship is based in the KU School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences within the Division of Psychology, and the fellow and the onco-psychology team are part of The University of Kansas Cancer Center, one of 70 National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers in the nation and the only one in the state.
"This specialty psychology training program and our psychology outreach to The Cancer Center reflect the psychiatry department's commitment to combine efforts with our University of Kansas Medical Center and The University of Kansas Health System partners whenever we can to advance the highest patient care, to advance our educational programs so that we can make a difference for others through the efforts of our trainees, and to try to learn how to improve mental and behavioral care approaches so that others can achieve the greatest good down the way," said William Gabrielli, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., chair, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences department.
"We savor opportunities like this program to combine important educational activities with really valuable patient care services," said Lauren Lucht, executive director, behavioral and mental health, The University of Kansas Health System. "This provides the greatest win all around."
As a sub-specialty, clinical health psychology has evolved from a focus on helping to treat patients with co-existing conditions to one that is more and more frequently finding a home in areas such as oncology, primary care, infectious disease and pediatrics.
Nearly half of all people with cancer experience clinical levels of depression or anxiety, while plenty of others manage symptoms such as nervousness, worry, mood changes and sleep disturbance to degrees that impact their quality of life. There's strong research supporting the benefits of addressing patients' mental health as well as their physical well-being, including helping to decrease the number of emergency room visits and hospital readmissions.
Beyond that, growing numbers of people are living longer with cancer as a chronic condition and surviving cancers that weren't survivable in previous years. Then, there are long-term effects to consider, such as fear of recurrence or late-onset effects that interfere with the ability to work or enjoy family life.
All of this points to a clear need for the onco-psychology specialty.
"Most of us can only imagine being told you have cancer," Dwyer said. "To walk alongside patients, supporting them and their families, is valuable to treating the whole person and making sure we're addressing their quality of life as they're going through this journey."
Kadie Harry, Ph.D., who completed the clinical health psychology fellowship in August, became interested in the relationship between mental and physical health when a close friend died of osteosarcoma in high school, though he lived years beyond his initial prognosis.
Working as an undergraduate and graduate research assistant at the University of California, San Diego's Moores Cancer Center conducting studies on cancer prevention programs and psychosocial outcomes among cancer patients only fueled Harry's passion to care for people with cancer.
A clinical practicum at the KU Cancer Center during her doctoral training solidified her interest in pursuing a career in onco-psychology.
"There are very few health psychology fellowships that offer specialized training in onco-psychology, so KU was the best fit to provide those opportunities," Harry said. "The wide range of experiences have prepared me for a job as a clinical psychologist with competitive skills that translate in any health psychologist role, as well as specialized training for working in an oncology setting."
On the clinical side at the KU Cancer Center, the onco-psychology team helps coordinate care between patients and providers at The University of Kansas Health System. For example, a psychologist may speak with a provider about the patient's difficulty sleeping or eating and then strategize ways to resolve the issue. Or, perhaps it involves a provider speaking to the psychologist about a patient who seems more withdrawn.
"I could not be prouder of our medical center and cancer center in supporting this important work," said Terry Tsue, M.D., vice president and physician-in-chief of The University of Kansas Cancer Center. "As a surgeon, I can attest to the influence of a patient's mental outlook on their cancer journey as well as the value fellows bring to successful patient outcomes."
With the strong support of Elizabeth Penick, Ph.D., ABPP, Psychology Division director, and under Dwyer's leadership, the psychosocial oncology program has grown from small and informal to a recognized leader in the discipline for both its excellent standard of care and the high-quality training. The fellowship's recent APA accreditation will only add to the program's visibility.
"We're not just a local hospital or a local cancer center. What we're doing is at the national level and at the highest standard of care," Dwyer said of the NCI-designated KU Cancer Center. "I love what I do with cancer patients, and I know the need is going to continue to grow so we want to train more psychologists to do this kind of work. At the KU School of Medicine, we want to offer a really competitive program that says you can come to KU, get the best training and go to any cancer center in the country and do this work."
Along with Dwyer, the onco-psychology team includes Jessica Hamilton, Ph.D., Heather Kruse, Ph.D., Marcus Alt, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Muenks, Ph.D.