Real World Health Care Blog

Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Teens and Young Adults with Cancer

This week, Real World Health Care focuses on the special behavioral health issues that can impact teens and young adults with cancer. We are delighted to share information on this topic from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, and to feature insights from Tammy A. Schuler, PhD, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Director of Outreach and Partnerships for ABCT.

ABCT is a multidisciplinary organization committed to the enhancement of health and well-being by advancing the scientific understanding, assessment, prevention, and treatment of human problems through the global application of behavioral, cognitive and biological evidence-based principles. It seeks to decrease human suffering using science.

Supporting the Cancer Community

Real World Health Care: How does ABCT address the special needs of adolescents and young adults with cancer?

Tammy Schuler

Tammy Schuler, PhD, Director of Outreach and Partnerships, Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies

Tammy Schuler: Adolescents and young adults (AYAs) and their families coping with cancer have a lot to deal with. The AYAs are dealing with a major, life-changing circumstance during a period of their life when they are also dealing with other huge changes and developmental milestones. ABCT provides a variety of information to this patient community on treatment for depression, anxiety, sleep, insomnia and other areas that AYAs may struggle with. We also offer a clinical directory in which people looking for cognitive behavioral treatment can find providers in their area. Some of these providers specialize in working with people and their families who are coping with cancer, and some of them specialize in working with young people coping with a range of concerns.

Reaching Out for Help

RWHC: What advice would you give an AYA or family member who may feel uncomfortable or unsure about reaching out to a cognitive behavior therapist for help?

TS: Normalizing it is important. Many AYAs dealing with cancer experience some sort of cancer-related behavioral health issue. Issues may not happen right away. They may come up at some point during treatment or when they’re recovering from cancer treatment and trying to get back to their lives, and even beyond. In fact, a lot of AYAs report that they experience struggles after cancer treatment is over.

It’s also normal for family members – especially caregivers – to experience a behavioral health concern, at any point after the AYA’s cancer diagnosis.

Behavioral health concerns can range from having more difficulty adjusting to or coping with the cancer than one might expect, to ongoing feelings of sadness, anxiety, worry, panic attacks, persistent insomnia, increased substance use, and other symptoms. If a distressing behavioral health symptom sets in and doesn’t let up, if a behavioral health symptom becomes really disruptive to day-to-day life, or if a person starts worrying that they might hurt or kill themselves, those are signs to reach out to a qualified therapist for help.

It’s perfectly okay to reach out to people who can help, including cognitive behavior therapists, no matter what. Cognitive behavioral therapists are used to working with people dealing with these kinds of concerns; and the sooner someone reaches out, the sooner a plan can be developed to help the person feel better. Be sure to carefully check the credentials of the therapist. They should be licensed to practice in the patient’s state and should be listed as members of professional organizations, such as ABCT or the American Psychological Association.

HealthWell’s Cancer-Related Behavioral Health Fund is a wonderful initiative for insured people who want to reach out to a cognitive behavioral therapist, but who are struggling with finances.

Fast Facts: Adolescents and Young Adults with Cancer

The following information has been excerpted from the full ABCT fact sheet, written by Glynnis McDonnell, Doctoral Candidate in Clinical Psychology at St. John’s University and a Psychology Intern with the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center & St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

A cancer diagnosis can be upsetting for individuals of any age; however, the effects of a cancer diagnosis and treatment may be especially upsetting for people diagnosed as adolescents and young adults (AYAs). This period involves rapid physical and psychosocial development, and a cancer diagnosis can interrupt these developmental processes:

  • Treatment often leads AYAs to take a large amount of time off from school or work, affecting career and education plans.
  • Treatment can make the formation of romantic relationships difficult due to factors such as body image concerns, limitations placed on one’s activities, etc.
  • Treatment can lead to infertility, interfering with the ability to start biological families.
  • A potentially life-threatening illness can be especially startling for AYAs:
    • AYAs likely have a better understanding of the seriousness of their illness than child patients but are often unprepared to process the meaning of a serious disease as effectively as older patients.
    • AYAs are still in the process of developing a stable sense of self. Therefore, diagnosis and treatment of a serious illness during this period could have a different psychological impact than it does for older adults.

There is growing evidence that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for many of the psychological difficulties faced by AYAs. CBT is a form of psychotherapy that draws upon the connections among one’s thoughts, behaviors and emotions. It cannot change the fact that this young person has had to cope with a difficult diagnosis, but it can help ease the related difficult feelings, including worry, sadness and guilt related to the cancer experience. It can also help the AYA process traumatic aspects of the cancer experience.

A Message from Our Sponsor

As the founding sponsor of Real World Health Care, the HealthWell Foundation is committed to helping patients get the medical treatments they need, regardless of their ability to pay. We’ve seen first-hand how financial distress can impact the health and lives of individuals and families. Cancer patients with behavioral health conditions are particularly hard hit; according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), patients with some forms of cancer incur $8,000 more per year in health care costs than cancer patients without behavioral health conditions.

In keeping with our mission, we are now accepting applications for our recently launched Cancer-Related Behavioral Health (CRBH) Fund, specifically for treatment-related behavioral health issues in cancer. The Fund provides financial assistance to individuals with a diagnosis of cancer to help with cost-shares (deductibles, coinsurances and copayments) for covered services rendered by behavioral health providers (psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical counselors, and licensed social workers).

We invite readers of Real World Health Care to learn more about our CRBH Fund and how you can support it by visiting www.HealthWellFoundation.org.