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Rhonda Johnson, Ph.D.(right) in her office
Rhonda Johnson, Ph.D., portrait

November 30, 2009

SIU Cancer Institute Offers Emotional Support Program for Patients

Playing a team sport is about every team member and what they contribute.  But it’s not just about the players or the coaches.  Both the cheerleaders and the fans can add to the “team spirit” and impact the momentum during a tough contest.

The Side-by-Side Program at the SimmonsCooper Cancer Institute (SCCI) at SIU School of Medicine in Springfield is now providing part of the “team momentum” for cancer care.  Cancer patients and their families are getting help from the Springfield-based program as they wind through the emotional challenges and obstacles that impact them.

The Side-by-Side program is lead by Rhonda Johnson, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and chief of SCCI’s oncology patient and family supportive services division.  SIU’s program began in 2008 and is part of its patient-center approach to cancer care.
“Our Side-by Side program treats cancer as a more than a physical disease because every patient and family has an emotional reaction to the disease,” says Johnson.  “Before the cancer diagnosis, people already have a level of stress so the diagnosis can be overwhelming.”

SIU’s Side-by-Side care and treatment first begins in the clinic when patients are seen by their team of caregivers.  Its psycho-oncology team is trained to help patients and their families with the stress created by a cancer diagnosis.  A psychologist provides counseling, advocating for the patient.  A social worker helps navigate through the treatments and identify the best resources for care.

Johnson works closely with two licensed clinical social workers, Katherine Howerter, who is supported with American Cancer Society funding, and Rebecca Loschen.  Chad Noggle, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, joined the team in June.

“Research shows that people who experience less distress survive longer,” Johnson explains.  “When asked what was missing in their treatment, five-year-plus survivors responded it was emotional support,” Johnson adds, noting that cutting the level of the patient’s stress is a large component in how their body will respond to treatment.

As part of the therapy, the Side-by-Side team uses “distress thermometers” – a simple form that allows the patient to rate their level of stress.  Patients complete the form at each appointment, circling the number, zero through ten, which describes the amount of distress they’ve experienced in the past week as well as that day.  They indicate the cause of the stress, with a list of items from which to choose.

“This simple tool allows us to take the support of our patients one step further.  Before we began using it, only 10 to 15 percent of caregivers reported seeing patients with stress,” Johnson explains.  In using the distress thermometer, 30 to 40 percent of patients have reported experiencing stress.  She explains many issues can add to a patient’s emotional distress --

Johnson says several relaxation methods to alleviate stress can be part of a patient’s care.  The therapies used in relieving stress include exercise such as yoga or tai chi, a healing touch massage called Reiki, keeping a journal, and expressing emotions through forms of art.

Family members are part of the Side-by-Side program because they also can benefit from the emotional support.  “Sometimes family members take on responsibilities or simple chores because they think the person living with cancer is not able.  But the patient should do as much as they feel like doing, explains Johnson.  “Maintaining as much of a normal lifestyle is important to the patient’s overall health.  That can be a learning process for the patient and the family.”

To learn more about the Side-by-Side program, contact the office at 217-545-5408 weekdays.  The mission of the SimmonsCooper Cancer Institute at SIU is to serve the people of central and southern Illinois by addressing their present and future cancer care needs through medical education, biomedical research and patient service.  Its Web site is and its main phone number is 217-545-6000.

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