UMaine Study to Explore Cancer Treatment, Patient Functionality, Expectations

For the nearly 9,000 Maine residents and more than a million nationwide undergoing cancer treatment, the resulting fatigue and exhaustion forces lifestyle changes, and choices, that can affect family and friends, in addition to patients themselves. Patients in treatment cannot continue doing what they are used to doing, or would like to do, and must depend upon others for help.

Researchers at the University of Maine School of Nursing are beginning a study this month that aims to explore cancer patients’ preferences, values and needs while undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy, so they can explore what community support services might be desirable to help keep life as normal as possible.

Patricia Poirier, assistant professor of nursing, says a major focus of nurses caring for patients undergoing treatment for cancer is maintaining and supporting quality of life, particularly “functional status.” Functional status — the ability to carry out one’s usual activities — has been shown to decline during both radiation therapy and chemotherapy, she says.

“The one thing we know is radiation makes people tired,” says Poirier, who is co-principal investigator in the study with associate professor of nursing Ann Sossong. “We don’t really know why it makes people tired or what to do about it.”

Daily radiation treatments for four to eight weeks, or months of chemotherapy, not only financially strains people without adequate sick leave at work, but it’s time consuming and exhausting. Patients with families may have to choose, say, between cooking and taking kids to an after-school ball game, or grocery shopping.

“Once we find out what people want to do and can’t, we could look at getting more support in place,” Poirier says. A former radiation oncology nurse for 25 years before going into teaching, Poirier has researched and published on cancer patient fatigue, beginning with her doctoral dissertation.

Poirier and Sossong are actively seeking volunteers. They are talking with cancer centers in Brewer and Augusta to secure permission to interview as many as 200 cancer patients with a newly developed questionnaire, the Comprehensive Inventory of Functioning-Cancer (CIF-CA), a unique instrument that measures both actual and desired functional status. Inability to perform desired activities may have a detrimental effect on individual’s relationships with family and co-workers, Poirier says.

Findings from the project, made possible by a modest grant from the American Nurses Foundation, will help provide a valid and reliable instrument that oncology nurses can use to identify what activities patients most wish to maintain during cancer treatment. The results will help oncology nurses in all settings develop patient-centered, evidence-based models of nursing care, says Poirier.

“Previous studies have all measured actual functional status, that is, what activities patients actually engage in or are able to engage in. Research has not shown what activities patients desire to engage in or what activities are most valuable to them,” she explains. The CIF-CA questionnaire “asks people both ‘what can you do during treatments and what would you like to be doing during treatment?’ so we can help people with choices they may have to make.”

Poirier, originally from Western Maine, says she and Sossong want to interview patients from rural areas — as opposed to Southern Maine — where transportation or a lack of community services could intensify the conflict between everyday obligations and cancer treatments.

Poirier and Sossong will personally do interviews with the questionnaires. They expect the project to end by June 2012, when they’ll submit their findings for publications in one or two of several professional nursing journals.

For additional information about the study, Poirier can be reached on the Orono campus at (207) 581-3009; Sossong can be reached at (207) 581-3427.

Contact: Patricia Poirier, (207) 581-3009; Ann Sossong, (207) 581-3427