AT ASCO 2017

CHICAGO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – Clinicians have gotten much better in recent decades at helping patients cope with physical side effects from cancer care, but mental health interventions aimed at easing stress and fear are often absent or, at best, an afterthought.

As three new studies show, however, early psychological interventions can both improve the quality of life for patients with cancer and enhance clinical outcomes.

For example, an online stress management program dubbed STREAM, developed jointly by oncologists and psychologists, was associated with significantly better quality of life and lower levels of distress for patients 2 months after a new cancer diagnosis, compared with controls who had not yet used it, reported Viviane Hess, MD, a medical oncologist at the University Hospital of Basel (Switzerland).

“From randomized controlled trials, we know that cognitive behavioral therapies are effective in mediating distress. However, the majority of cancer patients lack psychological support, due to both barriers on the patients’ side and lack of resources on the providers’ side,” she said at a briefing at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Other studies presented in the briefing show that psychological interventions can significantly reduce patient anxieties about the possibility of cancer recurrence and help relieve depressive symptoms for at least 6 months among patients with advanced cancers.


Dr. Hess and her colleagues conducted a prospective, wait-list controlled trial for patients who had started therapy for a newly diagnosed cancer within the past 12 weeks. The patients were randomized to either immediate use of an online psychological intervention or to a delayed start.

The investigators chose a web-based intervention because a majority of patients with cancer already use the Internet for information, and because Internet interventions can overcome barriers of time and distance, with results comparable to those seen with face-to-face interventions, Dr. Hess said.

The intervention consisted of eight weekly sessions based on approaches used in cognitive behavioral therapy, with focus on bodily reactions to stress, cognitive stress reduction, feelings, and social interactions. Each of the eight sessions focused on a single topic. Patients were given written and audio information about each topic and then were asked to perform exercises and complete questionnaires.

For this “minimal contact” intervention, psychologists based in Basel reviewed each patient’s progress weekly and gave written feedback personalized for that patient via a secure online portal.

In all, 129 patients were randomized (65 to the intervention and 64 controls). The majority were women treated with curative intent for early-stage breast cancer. Patients newly diagnosed with lung, ovarian, and gastrointestinal cancers, as well as melanoma and lymphoma, also were included.

Patients in both the active intervention and control groups were assessed at baseline and at 2 months with three quality-of-life measures: the FACIT-F (Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy Fatigue subscale), DT (Distress Thermometer), and HADS (Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale).

At 2 months, the mean FACIT-F score for patients in both the intervention and control groups increased, indicating an improved quality of life, but the change was significantly greater for patients in the intervention group (mean 8.59 points vs. controls; P = .0032). There was also a significant decrease in the DT scale from 6 points at baseline to 4 points at 2 months among patients randomized to the intervention, but no change among controls. There were no significant differences in either anxiety or depression between the groups, however.

“Most oncologists, particularly when we’re meeting patients for the first time and starting on curative intent therapy, it is assumed there is a level of distress … but we assume that that level of distress will fall naturally as we start them on therapy,” commented ASCO expert Don S. Dizon, MD, from the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston, who was not involved in the study.

“What Dr. Hess is showing is that not only do they have distress, but it’s significant distress,” he said, adding that the study shows that online tools can be effective at providing support, and that the ease of access can help patients who might otherwise never meet with a mental health professional.

Recurrence fears assuaged

In a separate study, investigators from Australia reported results of a randomized phase II trial showing that an intervention called Conquer Fear was effective at lowering fear of recurrence among patients with successfully treated stage I-III breast, colorectal, or melanoma cancers who reported a high level of fear of recurrence.

“Fear of cancer recurrence is associated with poorer quality of life, greater distress, lack of planning for the future, avoidance or excessive use of screening, and greater health care utilization,” said Jane MacNeil Beith, MD, PhD, a medical oncologist at the University of Sydney.

Dr. Beith and her colleagues randomly assigned 222 patients to either the Conquer Fear intervention or relaxation training (control group).

Patients assigned to the control group received five 1-hour individual, face-to-face relaxation sessions over 10 weeks. The sessions included muscle relaxation, meditative relaxation, and visualization and quick relaxation techniques taught by trained study instructors. Patients in each group received instructions for home-based relaxation techniques.

The Conquer Fear intervention is intended to help patients with values clarification, detached mindfulness (focusing on the moment), attention training, meta-cognitive therapy (worry or not worry), and a behavioral contract to ensure appropriate follow-up.

They measured fear of recurrence using the validated 42-item Fear of Cancer Recurrence Inventory (FCRI), which scores fear on a scale of 0-168, with higher scores indicating higher levels of fear, Dr. Beith said.

The mean baseline FCRI scores were 82.7 for patients assigned to the intervention and 85.7 in controls.

Participants in both groups had improvement of all outcomes, but patients in the active intervention group had significantly lower FCRI total scores at the end of the intervention and at 3 and 6 months of follow-up. The severity of fear of recurrence was also lower among patients in the intervention group immediately afterward and at 3 months, but not at 6 months, she reported.

“I applaud Dr. Beith for her trial, particularly because we as oncologists have only about 15 minutes with our patients, and the assessments for our patients, even in follow-up, for the most part concentrate on cancer-related outcomes, because that’s what our patients want to know. They want to know if they’re fine, or they want to know, is their cancer back,” Dr. Dizon commented.

The study demonstrates fear of recurrence is real, but that there are also interventions that can help patients reduce those fears, he said.


In a third study, Gary Rodin, MD, from the department of supportive care at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, and his colleagues reported that a brief psychological intervention with the acronym CALM (for Managing Cancer and Living Meaningfully) was associated with a “clinically meaningful” reduction in depressive symptoms in patients with advanced cancer.

Patients in CALM receive three to six individual sessions delivered over 3-6 months. The program helps patients cope with symptom management and improve communications with health care providers, understand changes in themselves and their relations with others, find a personal sense of meaning and purpose, and learn to live with thoughts of the future and mortality, Dr. Rodin explained.

In a clinical trial, 52% of the 151 patients randomized to the intervention had clinically important reductions in depressive symptoms at 3 months, compared with 33% of controls assigned to usual care. At 6 months, the respective reductions in depressive symptoms were 64% vs. 35%.

The intervention also was effective at preventing depression among 137 patients without depressive symptoms at baseline. In this group, 13% of patients who received the CALM intervention had depressive symptoms at 3 months, compared with 30% of controls.

In addition, patients who received CALM support at both 3 and 6 months said they were better prepared for the end of life, reported that they had greater opportunity to talk about their concerns for the future, were less frightened, and said they had greater ability to express and manage their feelings. At 6 months these effects were strengthened, and the CALM group also felt more able to understand their cancer experience, deal with changes in relationships as a result of cancer, explore ways of communicating with their health care team and family, and clarify their values and beliefs.

“The intervention addresses both the practical problems that people face, and there are many – How do I manage my pain? My symptoms? – but also the profound problems and issues that people face – What is the meaning of my life? – when having a terminal diagnosis, for instance,” he said.

The investigators are currently establishing a global network to train health professionals in the delivery of CALM, and to evaluate the program’s effectiveness in different clinical settings and cultures, he said.

The STREAM study was institutionally supported. Dr. Hess disclosed travel and accommodations from CSL Behring. The Conquer Fear study was funded by Cancer Australia, beyondBlue, and the Australian National Breast Cancer Foundation. Dr. Beith reported no relevant disclosures. The CALM study was supported by the Canadian Institute of Health Research. Dr. Rodin reported no relevant disclosures.