Contributing writer: Deb McCollister, PRMS Program Director at the University of Colorado Cancer Center

The Cancer Center Education Work Group is going strong and held its 10th Lunch and Learn event of the year. The group has brought on a variety of expert speakers on topics of interest to Cancer Center personnel, including The History of Cancer, Cancer Genetics, Pathology, and Advances in Cancer Care. Our September speaker, Diane M. Simard, brought us her own personal experience with cancer. As a 4-year breast cancer survivor, aerospace executive and author of the book “The Unlikely Gift of Breast Cancer” her talk was popular on campus and turnout for the presentation was excellent.

Diane’s book, The Unlikely Gift of Breast Cancer.

There is probably a good reason why. Diane’s ability to turn a negative into a positive lends to her strength of character. People are drawn to the stories of others, especially those where hardship and challenge is met with grit, determination and action. Describing the down and dirty details of undergoing chemotherapy and the secrets that cancer patients keep hidden (worry, depression, anxiety, loss of control, dealing with other competitive cancer patients [i.e., my cancer is worse than yours!]), Diane painted an honest portrait of what patients experience. She realized she was letting cancer be an all-consuming rumination. She explained that for some, surviving gets even harder on the psyche the further one gets from diagnosis. 

Recognizing that she might benefit from talking with a counselor about these challenges, Diane asked her oncologist if there were professionals who specialize in helping someone like herself individually make sense of her experience. She was told “No, not many”, and group therapy such as support groups were just not her thing. 

Rather than accept the status quo, Diane’s take-action attitude kicked into gear. Being one who is well-connected in the metro-Denver area, she reached out to contacts who included Shelly Smith-Acuna, Dean of the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver. Together they did their research and discovered that no psychology training programs exist in the U.S. that focus on psychosocial oncology at the graduate level. One thing lead to another and before long, the Center for Oncology Psychology Excellence (COPE) at DU was founded. The first COPE classes were offered to graduate students at DU in Fall of 2016, and it is a first-of-its-kind training program that partners with community cancer centers. The vision is that this type of program will extend to other university curriculums. 

Legislative action is well underway and a bill has been carried forth to State Representative Mark Baisley. According to Diane, “we are just starting to develop strategy, including a future bill he will jointly carry, to make individualized psycho-oncology services more accessible to Colorado residents and their caregivers who experience (any type of) cancer. That’s seriously about as far as it’s gone, but at least it’s a start”.

Her ideas are not without controversy though. Many feel that 100% of all monies raised in the name of cancer should be spent on research and finding cures, and not funneled elsewhere. But as Diane says, as patients survive longer from advances in cancer therapies, there remains the challenges of long-term psychological effects, and the need to attend to well-being is also important. 

Join us for our next Lunch and Learn, scheduled for 10/16/19 at noon in Bushnell Auditorium. Sana Karam, MD, PhD will speak on radiation therapy and cancer. Sign up here.