Psychosocial research looks at the psychological and social impact that cancer has on the person with cancer, their family and the people around them. It also looks at how health professionals and other people can help to reduce this impact. Psychosocial research also tries to identify the extent and type of problems experienced by people with cancer and their families, and to find and evaluate ways to prevent these or to support people through them.

What is psychosocial research?

Almost everyone experiences distress and disruption as a result of a cancer diagnosis. Some people with cancer and their carers experience ongoing difficulties that can severely affect their quality of life. For example, they may become depressed, suffer ongoing anxiety and sleepless nights, or feel so tired and run down that they cannot keep up their normal life.

Partners and children may need to take up tasks previously done by the person with cancer, and they may also struggle with the uncertainty of the future. People from other cultures, people who live in remote or rural communities, or who have other stressful life events to contend with, may find cancer particularly hard to cope with. It has been suggested that psychosocial interventions should be part of every cancer patient's management plan.

Why is there a need for psychosocial research in cancer control?

While we all want to find a cure for cancer, millions of people live with cancer in the meantime. We can make a difference to the impact this disease has on the patient and those around them, through effective psychosocial research. Relatively little is currently known about many of the factors that influence or impact the psychosocial wellbeing of those with cancer. More information is needed about the most effective types of interventions, as well as identifying different combinations that might produce even greater benefits to those with cancer.

Research methods used in psychosocial research

A range of methods are used in psychosocial research, including use of focus groups (group discussions) and individual interviews, questionnaires to gather information research about people, and randomised controlled trials to evaluate psychosocial interventions.

Questions answered by psychosocial research include:

  • How do people react to being told they have cancer?  
  • How do they cope with having treatment for cancer?  
  • How can clinicians most effectively communicate with cancer patients and their families?  
  • Can we train health professionals to better pick up and answer patients’ concerns?  
  • Why do some patients decide not to finish their treatment?  
  • How do support groups assist patients and their families?

Limitations

Psychosocial research sometimes deals with small numbers of participants, numerous confounding factors and relatively few treatment-control comparisons. These limitations can make it difficult to determine the actual effect of a psychosocial intervention.

Cost of psychosocial research

Psychosocial research often involves the active cooperation of research participants. Recruitment and involvement take time and money. As does the cost of telephone calls, postage, and other required resources.

Who conducts psychosocial research?

Researchers at universities or research institutes may carry out psychosocial research. The health-care professionals involved in care, such as nurses, primary care physicians, surgeons, and oncologists, or by professionals with special training in social work, psychology, or psychiatry may also carry out this type of research.

Reproduced with the kind permission of Cancer Council New South Wales.