Jan 29, 2019

Better outcomes for cancer patients

Professor Carlene Wilson and Dr. Gemma Skaczkowski are researchers in the ONJ Centre's Psycho-Oncology Research Unit.

"Psycho-Oncology is the study of behavior related to cancer. In the context of the Wellness Centre, it's about asking what sort of behaviours lead to better outcomes for people being treated, living with or surviving cancer - or helping people be well during and after their cancer experience," says Carlene, who is Professor of Psycho-Oncology and head of the unit.

Their roles have brought them to study a range of diverse and interesting topics: they've been examining the factors that influence how easily people make the transition back to work after cancer treatment, and published on how using the spa bath in the Palliative Care ward leads patients to experience less pain, less anxiety and a greater quality of life.

Next month, the duo fly to New Zealand to present findings from five studies at the Australasian Society of Behavioural Health and Medicine conference, including one on whether Wellness Centre's gentle yoga program improves patients' well-being (spoiler alert: it does have psychological benefits).

"The Psycho-Oncology Research Unit is focused on making sure that the things we do here make a difference to cancer patients, and improve outcomes," says Carlene.

Gemma, who is a post-doctoral research fellow, says that their research also seeks to understand why some groups make little use of wellness and supportive care programs when they have cancer.

She is about to begin a series of focus groups to try to understand the reasons behind the low use of supportive care by patients from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

"What we do can have a direct impact on patient care - you don't get that in all forms of research," Gemma says.

For Carlene, the most exciting piece of work underway at the moment is one that aims to understand what the concept of ‘wellness' means to people who have a cancer diagnosis.

"When you're sick, the way you think about your illness and the treatment of your illness - your attitudes, cognitions and feelings - impact your experience. Because they're all things we can influence, we can influence people's experience of a cancer diagnosis," Carlene says.

"Cancer is just the first cab off the rank - most of the other diseases that have a lifelong impact have the same challenges. What we find here could be applied across other disease groups," she says.

Like many researchers, Carlene and Gemma say that one of their biggest challenges is recruiting participants into their trials.

"Please encourage the participation of your patients, their family members and survivors. And please recognise that supportive care generally is an important need for people being treated with cancer - improving people's cancer experience can help them to adhere to their treatment better, and engage better."