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How to recognize and manage psychological distress in cancer patients


Jill Cockburn, Room 243A David Maddison Building, Cnr Watt and King St. Newcastle, NSW, Australia (e-mail:


Psychological distress is common in cancer patients, however, it is often unrecognized and untreated. We aimed to identify barriers to cancer patients expressing their psychological concerns, and to recommend strategies to assist oncologists to elicit, recognize, and manage psychological distress in their patients. Medline, Psychlit, and the Cochrane databases were searched for articles relating to the detection of emotional distress in patients. Patients can provide verbal and non-verbal information about their emotional state. However, many patients may not reveal emotional issues as they believe it is not a doctor's role to help with their emotional concerns. Moreover, patients may normalize or somatize their feelings. Anxiety and depression can mimic physical symptoms of cancer or treatments, and consequently emotional distress may not be detected. Techniques such as active listening, using open questions and emotional words, responding appropriately to patients’ emotional cues, and a patient-centred consulting style can assist in detection. Screening tools for psychological distress and patient question prompt sheets administered prior to the consultation can also be useful. In conclusion, the application of basic communication techniques enhances detection of patients’ emotional concerns. Training oncologists in these techniques should improve the psychosocial care of cancer patients.