American Psychological Association President Urges Initiatives to Address Profession’s Service to Cancer Victims, Families and Minorities

Richard Suinn will use his prerogative as president of the American Psychological Association to ask for initiatives to address psychology’s role in helping cancer patients and their families, especially minorities.

Suinn, professor of psychology at Colorado State University, is only the third minority president in the association’s 107 years of existence. An Asian-American born in Hawaii, Suinn will present his calls for study and action at the association’s convention in Boston beginning Aug. 20.

Cancer is a physical disease that deeply affects the spirit, not only of its victims but of all those close to them, Suinn said, and psychological counseling can assist in facing cancer’s ramifications, improving communications with health-care providers and among families and in dealing with decision-making about treatments.

Ethnic minorities, Suinn argues, have been excluded in part from psychological services but in larger part have much to teach the profession and, through psychology, the wider world.

With regard to cancer, two out of three families are touched by the disease, Suinn said, adding that psychologists can help cancer patients directly and by working with primary health-care practitioners.

"There’s a long history (of psychologists’ involvement in physical health problems), and this is a new direction only in that we haven’t shown that psychologists can play an important role in this," he said. Key issues include:

  • The notion that "cancer is an enormous assault on the person and has the rare quality of causing patients to be anxious about and mistrust their own bodies." Images of cancer as a dark force or alien entity are common, and the distress that follows can be addressed through counseling to restore trust and a sense of control.
  • Evidence that people with cancer can deal better with the pain of some invasive diagnostic techniques through counseling, as compared with general anesthesia or sedation.
  • Counseling’s role in reducing the side effects of chemotherapy.
  • Studies suggesting patients live longer, possibly because reducing stress helps strengthen the immune system.

"With cancer, as opposed to most other illnesses, much of the decision-making is left up to the patient," Suinn said. "Options are based on probabilities rather than certainties, so deciding what to do for a cancer patient is different than it is for people with broken bones, where physicians go ahead and deal with the break. It’s important that psychologists consult with such cancer patients to help them weigh factors, come to conclusions and work out who to talk to."

Regarding minorities, Suinn notes that cancer incidence and mortality are higher for these groups than for whites; African-Americans, for example, are roughly 30 percent more likely to die of cancer, and cervical cancer is twice as high among Vietnamese women as it is among whites, with Hispanic women a close second to Vietnamese. But the relation between minorities and psychology goes beyond cancer.

"One of the things the profession needs to do is to bring more ethnic minorities to the field as practitioners," Suinn said. "Another issue is based on research regarding (psychological) services to ethnic minorities that confirms they are underserved and frequently terminated early in treatment."

But increasing diversity as a goal has the potential for being of value to everyone. He cited a study showing that African-American parents of severely mentally ill children had better coping skills and less depression than white counterparts. Research by the Texas Department of Health shows Latino children grow up to live longer because of positive adult attitudes toward health behaviors. A major study of more than 200 colleges and universities confirmed that white students’ intellectual abilities and academic motivation benefited when these students had the opportunity to interact with ethnic minority peers.

"You can learn from these other cultures," Suinn said. "Don’t you think gaining better coping skills, gaining intellectually and being subject to less depression would be worth the interactions?

"The answer, for psychologists and others, to the question, ‘Why diversity?’ is, "Because it benefits you,’" he said.

The convention’s theme is "Many Voices Into One," and the Rev. Jesse Jackson will serve as keynote speaker. Suinn will speak or participate in six panels at the convention.