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Onco-psychology team playing a growing role in department’s success

Since it was established in 2014, the oncology-psychology team has quickly expanded both in the number of dedicated faculty and in its role in helping the department fulfill its mission.

Cancer is scary, and unfortunately, not uncommon.

For all the advanced modern medical knowledge and treatments designed to combat the disease in all its myriad forms, the human element remains at the heart of every cancer journey. That's where the oncology-psychology team at the University of Kansas Medical Center comes in.

A vibrant part of the Division of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, the team of seven provides psychotherapy services to individuals, couples and families dealing with a cancer diagnosis. They also play an important role in the educational and research missions of the department and KU Medical Center.

"I hope people know our team is here to support the patients, caregivers and the whole oncology team to best serve the emotional needs of patients as they move through their cancer journeys. In addition to our clinical roles, the team prioritizes training learners in various disciplines," said Marcus Alt, Ph.D.

Led by Meagan Dwyer, Ph.D., the team comprised of Alt, Heather Kruse, Ph.D.; Elizabeth Muenks, Ph.D.; Hannah Katz, Psy.D.; Jessica Hamilton, Ph.D., and Ashley Rhodes, Ph.D., provides services at various sites including The University of Kansas Cancer Center's location in Westwood, Kan., and community cancer centers throughout the greater Kansas City area. They work with patients in general oncology, hematological malignancies and cellular therapies (HMCT), and inpatient consultation and liaison services.

"Overall, we are a growing group who are passionate about cancer care and motivated toward continuing to advocate for psychology's valuable role in medical care," Alt said.

Helping cancer patients live longer and better

Although a few psychologists and a psychiatrist previously worked with oncology, the onco-psychology team was officially formed in July 2014 with Dwyer and a fellow (Hamilton) and has expanded at a brisk clip since then.

In their clinical work, the team works closely with its medical colleagues to provide health and behavior assessments and interventions when patients disclose problems such as trouble with sleeping, changes in appetite, difficulties with medication adherence and limited coping skills. They also sometimes provide cognitive assessments as well as complete pre-transplant psychological evaluations for people who are being considered for bone marrow transplants or other cellular therapy treatments.

It's important work. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in two men and one in three women will face a cancer diagnosis in their lifetimes. Meanwhile, research shows that 30% to 40% of people with cancer will struggle mentally and emotionally while managing their diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, side effects and other ways the disease impacts their lives.

"The good news is cancer patients are living longer, but this means they will be dealing more with the long-term effects of their treatments," Dwyer said. "Many of these patients, and their caregivers, will benefit from health psychology and therapy intervention to help them cope with cancer."

Training future onco-psychologists

Beyond fulfilling their clinical responsibilities, the onco-psychology faculty take seriously the teaching and mentoring aspects of their roles. The onco-psychology unit oversees a clinical health psychology postdoctoral fellowship. When that training program earned accreditation from the American Psychology Association in 2019, it was just the 10th program of its kind to earn that distinction and only the second program in the United States with an oncology emphasis to gain the coveted APA accreditation.

Onco-psychology faculty also engage with psychology practicum students, interns and a postdoctoral fellow as well as medical students, residents, fellows and nursing students.

"Every member of the team is involved in the training programs whether through direct supervision, consultation or professional development. The breadth of onco-psychologists allows trainees to think about cases from different perspectives and viewpoints," said Katz, who was both a psychology intern and onco-psychology fellow in the department before stepping into a faculty position.

"From the perspective of a former fellow and intern, the best day is Thursday. That's when the team meets for an hour and a half. During this time, faculty and trainees present on various topics specific to onco-psychology. Additionally, there is a case conference," she said. "This was and still is one of my favorite aspects of the program because it allows for continued growth no matter where you are in the academic journey."

Dwyer sees only an increasing demand for psychologists specializing in caring for people with cancer.

"The need for more psychologists in oncology settings will continue to grow and having opportunities for trainees at various levels to gain experience can help grow this vital workforce for years to come," she said.

Becoming a national leader in psychosocial oncology

Although the team is composed of full-time clinicians with full patient schedules, they still engage in clinically driven research by using their patient experiences to ask empirical questions that hopefully lead to improved quality and quantity of life for people with cancer. For instance, faculty conduct ongoing research and have published papers about the process and outcomes related to psychosocial distress screenings for people with cancer mandated by the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer. Faculty members on the team also have published or presented at symposiums on diversity and inclusion as well as collaborated with other physicians, trainees and administrators in research on a variety of topics.

Even with all its momentum, the onco-psychology team isn't slowing down. In the short-term, Dwyer envisions growing the clinical aspects of the program so services are available in other cancer areas such as radiation oncology. Looking longer term, she hopes to further integrate psychology care alongside disease specific specialists, translating into psychologists working directly with major disease groups. Expanding the clinical training program and developing a more robust research area in collaboration with oncology also are on the radar.

"I think this type of program development could position KU Medical Center as a leader in the field of psychosocial oncology at the national level," she said.

As the team continues fulfilling its three-fold charge of providing outstanding care, exceptional teaching and meaningful research, the group is mindful cancer can be a heavy topic and tries to keep its internal dynamics fun and supportive. They try to get off campus at least once a semester to enjoy an activity. Past outings have included an escape room, pickle ball, bocce ball, bowling, a painting class, a movie and pottery making.

"We value our team," Dwyer said. "We make sure to talk about compassion fatigue and burnout in support of one another."

Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

University of Kansas Medical Center
Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Mailstop 4015
3901 Rainbow Boulevard
Kansas City, KS 66160
Phone: 913-588-6400
Fax: 913-588-6414