RIYADH: Support for cancer survivors’ post-treatment was discussed on Wednesday during a Civil Society 20 Virtual Summit held in Riyadh, ahead of next month’s G20 Virtual Leaders’ Summit.
The session, which took place during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, shared a Saudi experience to promote psychosocial support for survivors by shedding light on global practices and possible solutions to reforming health systems for post-treatment needs.
Research and individual experiences show there are psychological needs for post-treatment cancer patients.
Survivors report ongoing struggles to achieve balance in their lives after a life-altering experience. This could include fear of recurrence, concerns about death and radical changes in values and goals.
While the experience of survivorship is dynamic, the panel discussion said that psychological support must be provided for cancer survivors to treat long-term psychological impact.
Professor and consultant of psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine at King Saud University’s College of Medicine, Dr. Fahad Dakheel Al-Osaimi, said that emotional distress was associated with a patient’s diagnosis of cancer and occurred in up to 45 percent of cases in the cancer trajectory, including post-treatment.
“We have to treat emotion as the sixth vital sign,” Al-Osaimi said.
Vital signs are measurements of the body’s most basic functions. The five main vital signs routinely monitored by medical professionals and healthcare providers are temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate and oxygen saturation.
Al-Osaimi added that there were many changes patients went through after their treatment, including long-term effects such as fatigue and depression.
“We have to dance with our patients, stage by stage,” he said, explaining how, post-treatment, patient care should be tailored to the individual.
Al-Osaimi suggested the use of “distress thermometers” in clinics that patients could fill out before seeing their doctor. The forms would allow a doctor to assess the emotional state of a patient and determine how best to address it.
Cancer survivor activist Hadeel Abdulaziz Al-Jasser was severely affected by anxiety and depression when she was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago.
“No words can describe how you feel when someone tells you: ‘You have cancer,’” the 35-year-old mother of three said.
She said that it was important to recognise those feelings and address them without feeling shame for seeking help.
Clinical psychologist at the Psych Care Clinic in Riyadh, Haifa Abdulwahab Al-Shamsi, said that patients tended to “suffer in silence” after treatment.
She called for specialized programs to create a supportive community for survivors to provide them with information and raise awareness, relieving the health sector from post-care burdens.
“Such programs should be used widely for post-treatment patients,” she said.
Chief transformation officer at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, Shareefa Al-Abdulmunem, agreed with Al-Shamsi and called for “survivorship programs” to be implemented into the health system.
The co-founder of the Zahra Association, an NGO that supports breast cancer patients and survivors, said that organizations needed to develop programs and partnerships with the public and private sector.
“NGOs can bring a lot of expertise and networking in government and scientific communities, while the private sector can give resources and awareness,” Nouf Mohammed Al-Dwayan said.
President of the Oman Cancer Association, Dr. Wahid Al-Kharusi, called for unity in addressing the challenges caused by cancer.
“We need a coordinated medical sector to treat patients,” he said, adding that patients should not be made to feel lost between doctors, oncologists or psychologists.
Civil society needed to create a database of volunteers who were correctly trained so that they could be deployed and redeployed to provide one-to-one emotional support for survivors.
Al-Kharusi stressed the importance of empowering survivors and their social reintegration because it would open them to become volunteer survivors who could help to break the stigma around cancer.
He also highlighted the importance of supporting families of cancer patients.
The effect of cancer was not limited to the individual because it affected the family and close community, he explained. Cancer could also affect the quality of life of families and other informal caregivers in a way that may eventually lead to substantial social challenges.