Advanced cancer triggers enormous distress and brings challenges that can seem overwhelming. Yet most cancer centers lack systematic approaches to help patients and families manage the practical and emotional toll of advanced cancer. Findings from a randomized clinical trial of 305 patients with advanced cancer suggest that a brief psychological intervention, called Managing Cancer And Living Meaningfully (CALM), could help fill this need.
At 3 months, 52% of patients who received CALM had a clinically important reduction in depressive symptoms compared with 33% of patients who received usual care. Patients who received CALM also had improved psychological well-being at 3 and 6 months and were more prepared for the end of life.
“This brief talking therapy helps patients facing advanced cancer and their loved ones sustain what is meaningful in their life despite its limitations and face the future,” said lead study author Gary Rodin, MD, Head of the Department of Supportive Care at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, Canada. Dr. Rodin developed CALM with colleagues Sarah Hales, MD, PhD, and Chris Lo, PhD, and notes that training is underway to help expand the approach to cancer centers worldwide.
“It provides time and space for reflection on the threats and challenges associated with advanced cancer, the experience of a secure base in the therapeutic relationship, and support for the regulation and modulation of emotions,” said Dr. Rodin.
About the Intervention
CALM is a psychological intervention developed specifically for patients with advanced cancer. It consists of three to six 45- to 60-minute sessions delivered over 3 to 6 months by trained health-care professionals, such as social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, palliative care doctors and nurses, and oncologists. Family members or partners are invited to attend the CALM sessions. The sessions focus on four broad domains:
“CALM is distinct from other interventions in that it is meant to help patients live with advanced disease, rather than just prepare them for the end of life, and in that it is focused on both the practical and more existential concerns faced by those with advanced cancer,” stated Dr. Rodin.
About the Study
In this study, 305 patients with advanced cancer were recruited at a comprehensive cancer center in a large urban area in Canada. The patients were randomly assigned to CALM therapy plus usual care or to usual care alone (control group).
Participants in the control group received routine oncology treatment and follow-up, as well as a clinic-based distress screening. About one-third of patients in the control group received some specialized psychosocial oncology care, but less than 10% received any structured or semistructured psychotherapy.
Researchers measured depressive symptoms (using the Patient Health Questionnaire-9) and other outcomes at study entry (baseline) and at 3 (primary endpoint) and 6 months (trial endpoint).
Compared with patients in the usual care group, patients in the CALM intervention group reported less severe depressive symptoms at 3 months, and the difference between the two groups was even greater at 6 months. In terms of clinical impact, for participants with depressive symptoms of at least subthreshold severity (clinically significant and associated with impairment, but which do not meet full criteria for the diagnosis of a major depressive disorder) at study entry, a greater proportion of those receiving CALM than those receiving usual care had a clinically important reduction in the severity of symptoms, both at 3 months (52% CALM vs 33% usual care) and 6 months (64% CALM vs 35% usual care).
CALM also helped prevent depression in 137 patients who did not have depressive symptoms at study entry. At 3 months, only 13% of such patients who received CALM developed depressive symptoms (of at least subthreshold severity) vs 30% of those who received usual care.
At both 3 and 6 months, the CALM group reported greater preparation for end of life, greater opportunity to talk about concerns about the future and to be less frightened, and a greater ability to express and manage feelings. At 6 months, these effects were strengthened, and the CALM group also felt better able to understand their cancer experience, deal with changes in relationships as a result of cancer, explore ways of communicating with their health-care team and family, and clarify their values and beliefs.
“A diagnosis of advanced cancer weighs heavily on patients and families, and this study gives a new approach that can ease this burden. As oncologists, our job isn’t just to treat our patients’ physical symptoms. It’s also to connect them with other forms of support to help them cope and plan for the future,” said Don S. Dizon, MD, FACP, ASCO expert.
This study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.