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Coping with cancer: a brief report on stress and coping strategies in medical students dealing with cancer patients



Background: This pilot study explored factors associated with stress in medical students during their initial clinical contact with cancer patients, in particular identifying stress levels and coping strategies used.

Methods: A total of 80 medical students at The University of Birmingham Medical School, UK, completed retrospective self-report questionnaires measuring socio-demographics, potential stressors and coping strategies (using the Brief COPE inventory). Statistical analysis followed data collection.

Findings: Of all socio-demographic categories, female gender correlated with the highest stress score (p<0.05). The most stressful situations reported related to the patient's condition, the biopsychosocial effects of the cancer on the patient and his/her family, and breaking bad news. A combination of problem- and emotion-focussed strategies were used to manage stress; and the extent of their usage was significantly related to individual stress levels (p<0.01) in both instances.

Interpretation: Medical students in an oncology setting experience moderate stress and utilise a combination of problem- and emotion-focussed coping strategies to combat this stress. A greater use of both coping strategies was seen in students experiencing higher levels of stress. This may suggest a relative lack of effective coping skills. In light of this, the implementation of coping strategy training as a part of the medical course and/or support groups may be beneficial. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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