Moving closer to death: understanding psychosocial distress among older veterans with advanced cancers

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BACKGROUND: Early identification of psychosocial distress is important to address the needs of vulnerable populations and influence symptom management. Older veterans diagnosed with life-limiting cancers are particularly vulnerable because they often have unmet needs, experiencing psychological or emotional problems and gaps in healthcare communication, which extends suffering. Lack of emotional support, ongoing physical pain, and unresolved symptom control can further increase distress among older veterans, contributing to complexity of decision-making for end of life (EOL) care.

OBJECTIVE: We explored older veterans' experiences and identification of psychosocial distress in cancer care to better understand how they describe distress while facing the end of life.

METHODS: Guiding this study is a conceptual framework from psychosocial oncology with the multifactorial experience of distress indicated by NCCN guidelines for distress screening. We use a phenomenological approach to explore the experience of psychosocial distress among older veterans diagnosed with advanced cancers at risk for dying within a year.

INCLUSION CRITERIA: Provider response of "no" to, "Would you be surprised if your patient died within a year?" and "yes", to the question, "Have you talked with your patient about the severity of their illness as being life-limiting, terminal?"

RESULTS: Five themes emerged: (1) the meaning of distress: "It's hard to explain"; (2) severity of advanced cancer: "There's no stage five"; (3) distressing thoughts about the possibility of dying: "Either way, it's life limiting"; (4) coping: "Deal with it and hope for a better day"; and (5) personal factors: "I don't want to be anything but a man who can handle adversity." Findings suggest older veterans may have unique cancer experiences different from other populations.

CONCLUSION: Older veterans in this study exhibited distressing symptoms which demonstrate they are at risk for declining health and in need of support for their distress. Healthcare providers are urged to understand the complexity of distress to provide the best possible treatment for older veterans.

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Supportive care in cancer : official journal of the Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer







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