November 8, 2002

Compas explores psychological effects of cancer

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Compas explores psychological effects of cancer

Bruce Compas, Ph.D., a researcher in the study of the psychological impact of cancer on patients and families, has joined Vanderbilt University‘s Peabody College as Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Psychology and Human Development.

The Berkeley, Calif., native has also been named director of psycho-oncology within the Pain and Symptom Management Program of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

Compas spent the last 21 years at the University of Vermont, where he was professor of Psychology, Medicine and Pediatrics and director of the doctoral program in clinical psychology.

“A big part of my motivation for coming to Vanderbilt is to link the work in psychology at Peabody with the work being done in the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center,” Compas said. “This is an incredible opportunity. The Pain and Symptom Management Program is truly a unique collaboration that can be found nowhere else in the country. I couldn’t be in a better place.”

Dr. Barbara Murphy, associate professor of Medicine, said that providing psychological support services for cancer patients has been a challenge, one that Compas is well qualified to meet.

“If we are to treat patients in a holistic way, we must deal with the psyche,” Murphy said. “With the efforts of Peabody College and the generous support of the Harts, we have brought Dr. Compas on board, and he has done remarkable things in a short period of time. He has brought together a solid, caring team to provide excellent care as well as carry out much-needed research in this area. We are fortunate to have such a stellar individual join us here at Vanderbilt.”

At Peabody, Compas will teach courses in the areas of clinical psychology, social and personality development and behavioral pediatrics.

“We are tremendously pleased to be able to bring someone of this caliber to Vanderbilt,” said Camilla P. Benbow, Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development. “With its rich history in psychology, Peabody can make important contributions to understanding the full impact of illnesses like cancer. Bruce Compas is central to this effort.”

Compas, who did his undergraduate and graduate work at the University of California-Los Angeles, has focused his research on how people are affected by stress, both physically and emotionally.

“Ultimately, we want to learn how to cope better and get through adversity,” Compas said, “I got interested in cancer about 20 years ago when I realized that if you wanted to study stress, cancer is the area to study. It didn’t take long to understand just how difficult this is for people.”

His work focuses not only on patients but on the rest of the family as well. “We recognized that cancer — its diagnosis, its treatment, its survival — affects all of who we are,” he said. “Cancer invades the family the way it invades the body.”

Specific areas of research include:

• Impact on children when a parent is diagnosed, work supported by the National Institute of Mental Health.

“You might intuitively think it would be harder on small children, but we found that it was more difficult for adolescents and especially adolescent girls,” Compas said. “They understand what’s going on, often understand more than they are ready for. And the girls especially take on a much larger role in the family. We see in them a lot of anxiety and depression.”

• Ways to help patients so that they, in turn, can help their children cope better.

This ongoing work, funded by the National Cancer Institute, studies women with newly diagnosed breast cancer. The randomized study compared a traditional support group setting with a support group that focused specifically on teaching coping skills, including relaxation, positive thinking and problem solving. There was also a group randomly assigned to wait to start either support group work about eight months later, after most of their therapy was completed.

“We have stopped recruiting and will be following up over two years,” Compas said. “The preliminary information looks as though it may be best to wait for a few months before intervening.”

• Impact of a family history of breast cancer on mothers and adolescent or young adult daughters.

Again funded by the National Cancer Institute, this research looked at coping and communication between the mothers, some who have had breast cancer but most who have not, and their daughters. While being videotaped, the pairs were instructed to talk about common stressful issues and then to talk about breast cancer. Statistical methods were used to rate emotion and ways of communicating.

“Some deal with the issues very openly and directly, while for others, their communication is very stressful, conflicted and characterized by avoidance,” he said.

Future work will also study biologic markers of stress, including the biochemical cortisol before, during and after these conversations.

With all his work, the ultimate goal is to identify coping strategies that make life better for patients and families and develop ways to equip patients and families with the knowledge and ability to use these effective strategies.

Among areas Compas wants to branch into is research in pediatrics, in collaboration with Dr. Jim Whitlock and others in Pediatric Hematology-Oncology, to study coping, stress and family dynamics when the patient is a child.