Cognitive symptoms may express themselves as repeated and ruminative thoughts such as "I brought this on myself," "God is punishing me," or "I'm letting my family down," and as fatalistic expectations concerning prognosis, despite realistic evidence to the contrary. Such thinking may predominate or may alternate with more realistic thinking, yet remain very stressful. Some individuals will share negativistic thoughts freely, and family members may be aware of them. Other patients will not volunteer such thinking but will respond to brief inquiries such as the following (other examples are listed in Table 1):
"Many people find themselves dwelling on thoughts about their cancer. What kinds of thoughts do you have?"
"Do you find yourself ever thinking I brought this on myself, God is punishing me? How often? Only a few times a week, or all the time? Do you believe these thoughts are true?"
"In spite of these thoughts, are you still able to go on with your life and find pleasure in things? Or, are you so preoccupied that you can't sleep, or feel hopeless?"
It is possible for a physician or nurse to ask these types of questions without becoming engaged in providing counseling themselves. Merely asking these questions will express concern and increase the likelihood that the patient will be receptive to suggestions for further counseling.
A statement such as the following can then follow these questions:
"Many people with cancer sometimes have these feelings. You are not alone. But talking to someone else about them can greatly help. I'd like to suggest that you consider doing that. Would you be willing to talk to someone who has a lot of experience helping people cope with the stress of having cancer?"
It is preferable at this time both to encourage the patient to seek out someone already known to him or her and to inform him or her of other resources in the community. Particularly for patients who have completed cancer treatment and who have manageable physical symptoms, higher perceived availability of social support has been associated with fewer depressive symptoms. In some instances, referral to a clergy person or therapist may also be appropriate. Most therapists can address general issues of grief or fears about death; some will specialize in clinical health psychology, medical social work, or even working primarily with cancer patients. For the hesitant patient, suggesting multiple resources will increase the likelihood that some assistance will be sought. For other patients, a formal direct referral may be appropriate.