Friday, April 3, 2015 12:00 AM

Treating the whole person in fighting cancer

For 14 years Sandra Miller and her good friend Janet Tanaka have been regulars at the Wednesday morning cancer support group at California Cancer Center. The two breast cancer survivors trained to help others through the ordeal they endured since they know just how important this kind of emotional support was to their own healing.

Sandra Miller and her good friend Janet Tanaka smiling at the regular Wednesday morning cancer support group at California Cancer Center.“Just before I had my mastectomy surgery 15 years ago I panicked,” Miller said. “They said come in to a group and ask your questions… In that one session, they became my family. I was calm after that. I want to provide that same unconditional support to others, because panic can really, really be debilitating.”

The link between cancer survival rates and emotional support isn’t definitive, but many medical studies have shown measurable differences in depression rates, improvements in hopefulness and enhanced quality of life for patients who receive that assistance. It’s important enough that the American College of Surgeons requires psychosocial distress screening and counseling support for cancer patients as a requirement for accreditation of cancer centers. Yet it’s not care that’s billed to insurance companies or Medicare and Medi-Cal.

Community Regional Medical Center has two full-time oncology social workers as well as cancer survivors who help patients at the California Cancer Center and the downtown hospital as part of the health system’s uncompensated community benefits.

“Our distress screening of all cancer patients looks at where they are socially, emotionally, spiritually and with their family,” said Cynthia Burton, LCSW, an oncology social worker. “Our role is to walk them through creating an advanced healthcare directive, provide individual counseling or group support or connect them to other resources depending on their needs.”

She said the health benefit are clear when patients aren’t struggling with depression. “Patients with hope are more responsive to treatment. And even after all the radiation, surgery, chemotherapy and doctors are done with a patient, we still see them. Patients are constantly faced with ‘What if it comes back?’”

Erin Kennedy reported this story. Reach her at