Cancer treatment presents huge physical challenges for patients, but often overlooked is the psychological distress it can bring.
It’s an area that Counselling Psychologist Dr Sinéad Lynch is keen to address through a new project with the Irish Cancer Society on a method called Compassion-Focussed Therapy.
The project, known as the ‘COMFORT Trial’, is funded by the NCCP. It came about as a response to the levels of mental anguish and trauma experienced by cancer patients over the course of the Covid-19 lockdowns in particular.
“People experienced real loneliness going through treatment during Covid,” explains Sinéad, who is based at the Mater Hospital in Dublin and works in conjunction with UCD.
“They’re going through their chemo sitting on their own, and they don’t have visitors in hospital. They’re lonely at home because they’re afraid to go outside. It’s a feeling of ‘no-one can really go through this journey with me; I’m going through all of this in my own mind.’
Sinéad describes Compassion-Focussed Therapy as a way of giving people the tools to help them understand how their thought patterns may cause worry, stress or sadness, and how to turn theirs into a ‘kinder mind’.
“Compassion-Focussed Therapy is an evidence-based practice that we can actually retrain the mind, and can also start to retrain a critical inner voice into a kinder inner voice.
“When you get a diagnosis like cancer, the future can be very uncertain, and that can be terrifying. People may also worry about their cancer getting worse, or the treatment not working. Our brains are programmed to look out for danger, spot any threat, and help us react to that threat.
“While those thoughts are reasonable, if you continuously think like that, then you’re continuously putting yourself into threat mode. You’re essentially robbing yourself of today by worrying about what might happen tomorrow.”
Once people have learned to identify these negative patterns and what may trigger them, Sinéad encourages them to be compassionate towards their own situation.
“Instead of saying ‘just get on with it’ and ‘there’s nothing you can do about it’, say ‘well actually, this is hard, and I might just give myself a rest right now, or not give out to myself for feeling sad’.”
Through the COMFORT Trial (standing for COMpassion-FOcussed therapy and breathing pattern ReTraining) Sinéad uses Compassion-Focussed Therapy alongside retraining of patients’ breathing patterns to ease their anxieties.
She aims to recruit 160 trial participants – with an emphasis on patients experiencing regression or recurrence of their diagnosis – who will take part in small group sessions to learn Compassion-Focussed Therapy techniques and breathing training.
The sessions happen online so that patients can take part while in hospital or isolating at home. Each participant goes for a ‘distress thermometer’ reading prior to their involvement in the six-week course, with a follow-up reading 12 weeks later, to test the trial’s effectiveness.
For Sinéad, hers was an atypical path to cancer research.
“I did my undergraduate degree in psychology but went on to work in television production. I lost my mother to cancer at the age of 30, and that just turned everything around for me.
“I really saw the value of counselling at that time, and so I decided to return to my psychology roots and study psychotherapy. After that I knew I wanted to work with cancer patients specifically, and after doing a doctorate in counselling psychology I was able to find opportunities to work in the hospital.”
In a twist of fate, Sinéad ended up co-producing a documentary with Birthe Tonseth and Roger Childs for RTÉ in 2016 where she walked the Camino de Santiago with cancer patients as an exercise in mindfulness, alongside her colleague Dr Paul D’Alton.
“It was lovely to bring both careers together,” Sinéad reflects.
As for the COMFORT Trial and her daily interactions with patients, Sinéad says she happily now finds herself in her “dream job”, which she “couldn't do without the support and help of the wonderful research team; Clodagh Finnerty, Yvonne O'Meara, Dr Damien Lowry and Prof Donal Brennan”.
“One of the patients I’d worked with on breathing patterns came back to me and told me she was in the day ward getting chemo. She noticed a bit of panic coming in, and she couldn’t believe the breathing worked.
“It’s so nice to hear group after group in this trial saying, ‘I’m so glad to discover this is not my fault,’ because people do think, ‘what is wrong with me, why am I such a worrier?’ – it’s lovely, and really rewarding.”
Daffodil Day 2023
For more information
1800 200 700