Program aims to ease the minds of cancer survivors

After completing cancer therapy, patients usually feel relief. But then the “what ifs” kick in.
“There’s this feeling of fear — that the cancer could come back, or often, people lose the support of the medical community if they’re finished treatment and that loss of support is shocking to some people,” said Dale Dirkse, a PhD student in clinical psychology at the University of Regina. “Also, some people are expected to pick up their roles — maybe go back to work or take on more responsibility at home.”
Sometimes, survivors can feel quite alone, she added. 
Dirkse, a member of Heather Hadjistavropoulos’ research team at the U of R, is launching a free Internet-delivered program called Wellbeing After Cancer. The project will treat men and women who have completed cancer treatment in the past two years —whether it’s chemotherapy, radiation or surgery —and they are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.
In 2010, Nicole Alberts, a master’s student in clinical psychology at the U of R, spearheaded the first Wellbeing After Cancer program. The pilot study, which involved 18 Saskatchewan residents, ended in 2014. The program showed significant reductions in survivors’ depression ratings and anxiety ratings from the beginning of the course to the end.
All participants in the pilot study indicated they would recommend the intervention to others and it was worth their time, Dirkse said.
She’s excited she received approval from the university’s Research Ethics Board to launch the new version of the program and expand the online therapy across Canada so more people can access services. 
As research co-ordinator, Dirkse will provide “guided” therapy.
“Therapists can’t practise in different provinces, so by providing a guide instead of a therapist, we can offer it across Canada,” she said.
While Dirkse won’t provide independent therapy, she will refer participants with questions to information on the online site. 
“Most of the time, it is more of a self-study type of a program,” she said.
During the eight-week online course, participants will work through five lessons that will teach them practical skills for coping with anxiety and depression. In the process, they will learn how to “tolerate” uncertainty.
Participants will rate their depression and anxiety weekly and Dirkse will monitor the results. If either emotion increases significantly, she will call and check to make sure they’re OK. 
She will evaluate the effectiveness of guided and self-guided treatment.
“At this point, we think they will be similar,” Dirkse said. 
She hopes about 100 Canadians will take part in the study.
Data will be analyzed and published in a peer-reviewed journal and used in Dirkse’s dissertation.
Before taking part in the research project, participants are screened to ensure they are a good fit for the study. To sign up, go to
The screening takes about 20 minutes. Participants are asked about their symptoms of anxiety and depression and the type of cancer for which they were treated. They must provide a medical contact in the event of an emergency.
Dirkse calls everyone who does the online screening to follow up on their responses and answer their questions.
“If anyone wasn’t the best fit, I’d refer them to their family physician or mental health services in their area,” she said. 
Responses from the online screening will be stored on the Online Therapy Unit secure server at the U of R.
“When they’re doing the course, it’s first name only and they’re assigned a user name and an ID, so their identifying information is not on the website,” Dirkse said.