Psychosocial Oncology

Dr. Barry Bultz, Division Head

Marissa Mackenzie, Administrative Assistant

Psychosocial Oncology is a professional specialty within oncology. It addresses the science and practice of the emotional, psychological, social, spiritual, and functional aspects of the patient’s and family’s experience of cancer as well as the interplay between behaviour, physical health and well-being. The mandate of the Department is to conduct counseling, research, and education in psychosocial oncology.

Members of the division include two full-time researchers, and a multidisciplinary team of clinical professionals (Psychologists, Psychiatrists and Social Workers) who are also actively involved in many facets of psychosocial research. The Division offers education and training opportunities for students/interns and post-doctoral fellows in collaboration with The Tom Baker Cancer Centre, Alberta Children’s Hospital, and the University of Calgary Faculty of Kinesiology and Faculty of Social Sciences (Department of Psychology) and the Faculty of Medicine.

Enbridge Endowed Research Chair

The Enbridge Research Chair in Psychosocial Oncology co-funded by the Alberta Cancer Foundation and the Canadian Cancer Society, Alberta/NWT Division was announced in 2005. The recruitment of the Chair concluded in March of 2007 and Dr. Linda Carlson was nominated as the first Chair until 2012. In the Fall of 2008 Dr. Janine Giese-Davis from Stanford University was recruited as an Associate Professor for the Chair program and will be working with the Survivorship CancerBRIDGES team on developing a comprehensive cancer survivorship research program in Alberta.

Psychosocial Screening Program

Dr. Barry Bultz initiated movement toward the widescale recognition of the importance of emotional distress in cancer patients with a series of presentations, publications, and editorials which resulted in the endorsement of Emotional Distress as the 6th Vital Sign by the Council of Canadian Strategy for Cancer Control (CSCC) in 2005. The Distress Screening Program (Personal Well-Being Checklist) received research funding in 2007 from the Alberta Cancer Board Research Initiative Program ($956,720), and the program was made available to all new patients in March 2008. More information about the program can be found at or

In addition, Canadian Partnership Against Cancer (CPAC) has identified Screening for Distress-the 6th Vital Sign as a priority for improving the “patient-centered approach” to cancer care. Dr. Barry Bultz is the lead for this initiative.

Strategic Plan

The mandate of the Department is to conduct counseling, research, and education in the area of psychosocial oncology. In addition to direct clinical intervention, the department will continue to develop state-of-the art knowledge concerning the science of Psychosocial Oncology. This will enable health care providers and the public to become better informed about the impact of cancer on the individual and family, thus promoting the opportunity for optimal psychosocial care.


The Division of Psychosocial Resources, Department of Oncology, one of the first in North America, continues to offer one of the only accredited courses in Psychosocial Oncology in Canada – MDSC 635. Students from various faculties at the U of C (Medicine, Social Work, Psychology and Nursing) enroll in this course. The Division’s Internship Training Program (CPA accredited since 1991) has attracted international students. In addition, educational opportunities exist for Social Work Practica, Clinical Psychology Internships, opportunities for Psychiatry Residents as well as Pre- and Post-Doctoral Research Fellowships.


Members of the Division are involved in ongoing research activities. The main areas of research focus on mind-body interactions, survivorship issues, Screening for Distress (6th Vital Sign) and clinical trials of interventions. Our researchers have been awarded over $7 million in external grant funding to continue to excel in research that enhances patient experience in their cancer trajectory.

Screening for Distress (6th Vital Sign)

This area of research acknowledges the high rates of distress in cancer patients and families from diagnosis and treatment through to recurrent disease and palliative care. We apply a knowledge transfer framework, with the goal of integrating research results regarding distress levels and efficacy trials of psychosocial interventions into a complete system of identification of distress, triage, and referral to empirically supported treatments.

Mind-body Interactions

This broad area covers a number of associations, interventions, and outcomes relevant to an oncology context. The exciting multidisciplinary field of psychoneuroimmunology and endocrinology provides methods and tools to investigate the interactions between psychological states and biological functions that may be important for cancer incidence or progression. We have just added the capacity to investigate, with state-of-the-art techniques, the impact of emotional expression in relationships that are important throughout the cancer trajectory.


Given that the majority of people now survive cancer treatment (over 65% of all patients will now live beyond 5 years post-diagnosis), there is a clear need to study and understand issues that arise well after the acute life threat of cancer has passed. Within survivorship, two distinct populations will be considered: survivors of childhood or adolescent cancer, and survivors of adult cancers in both rural and urban contexts.

Clinical Trials

Providing evidence-based psychosocial treatment that is well-integrated into the cancer patient’s medical trajectory is a hallmark of the Psychosocial Resources Group. Over the years, numerous clinical trials have been conducted validating the psychological, quality of life, and physiological benefits of mindfulness meditation, yoga, supportive-expressive group therapy, partner support groups, exercise interventions and online support groups. Providing these validated interventions has the department’s ongoing commitment.

Program Evaluations

Recent studies conducted by our researchers have focused on evaluation of feasibility and effectiveness of various programs offered by the department (e.g. the Smoking Cessation program, Tapestry Retreats, Kids/Teens Can Cope program).


The Division of Psychosocial Oncology offers a variety of evidence-based group programs. Group programs provide an opportunity to connect with health care professionals as well as other individuals who are going through similar experiences. These programs strive to improve quality of life and provide patients and their family members with skills and support to help them throughout their cancer journey.