December 1st, 2012

Vermont cancer patient program provides vital support

The holiday season – and all of its demands – can be stressful enough for healthy people. But for those facing a cancer diagnosis, it’s a particularly tough time of year.

“At the holidays, I can tell you that the sad story is that cancer doesn’t rest,” says Kathleen McBeth, M.A., a licensed psychologist master, and coordinator of the Cancer Patient Support (CPS) Program in Burlington, Vermont. The independent, non-profit organization offers free comprehensive supportive services to cancer patients and their families throughout northern Vermont and upstate New York.

Sadness, grief and anxiety are normal reactions for a newly diagnosed cancer patient. Between 15 and 25 percent experience major depression, according to the National Cancer Institute. CPS helps patients address their emotional concerns so they stay in compliance with their treatment plans.

That’s especially important during the holidays. Treatments that weaken a patient’s immune system mean they must avoid large crowds to protect their fragile health. No shopping malls. No big family gatherings. No fun. The support CPS offers can address feelings of isolation and even guilt for causing family stress.

“For some people when they feel hopeless and helpless – pretty much the hallmarks of depression – they also cannot understand the point of going through all the chemotherapy and radiation therapy and other things,” McBeth explains.

“I’ve had many doctors tell us that, ‘You know, you’re the reason why these people are coming’,” McBeth adds.

Embedded in the Hematology/Medical Oncology clinics at the Vermont Cancer Center at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, CPS treats more than 500 patients every month, providing individual and group counseling, nutritional counseling and emergency funding for patients facing financial hardships during their illness. The staff consists of three therapists, two full-time and one part-time, along with a full-time registered dietician and social worker.

CPS contacts a new patient referred to the program within 48 hours. “We really work hard at addressing people right away because we know that they’re in crisis,” McBeth says.

Before CPS was founded in 2000, there was no support program for the specific needs of the region’s cancer patients. Patients were referred to the psychiatry department which could mean a two-week wait for a therapist. Loretta Muss learned of this situation after she and her husband Hyman Muss, M.D. moved to Vermont in 1997 when he was named UVM Cancer Center director of Hematology/Oncology. Loretta Muss realized Vermont needed a program like the Cancer Patient Support Program at Wake Forest University Comprehensive Cancer Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., where her husband had previously been associate director for clinical research.

She assembled a network of dedicated and determined volunteers to raise funds and write grants to establish the organization. The Musses left Vermont in 2009 when Muss took over the geriatric oncology department at University of North Carolina Chapell Hill’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The Vermont CPS program’s entire annual $260,000 operating budget comes from grants and public support, including proceeds from an annual “Evening Song” black tie gala fundraiser and the Middlebury women’s hockey tournament Face Off Against Breast Cancer.

A cancer survivor, McBeth understands what the cancer patients she sees are going through. She remembers feeling lost and alone after she was diagnosed with lymphoma the day before Thanksgiving 16 years ago. “I had great family and support but you often don’t tell them everything because you’re protecting them,” she says.

Gratitude is a subject addressed often in therapy sessions and not just during the holidays, McBeth says. But she avoids discussing that other topic that comes up this time of year: New Year’s resolutions.

“The reality is we talk about taking one day at a time,” she says.

By Janine Weisman

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