New digital tool in Australia helps patients manage fear of cancer recurrence

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Australian researchers have developed an online tool to help cancer survivors manage their fears of cancer recurrence.

A research team has made a digital adaptation of a therapist-delivered treatment called ConquerFear, which was originally developed by the Psycho-Oncology Co-operative Research Group, a national cancer clinical trial group under the University of Sydney. The treatment has been found to be effective in paring down post-cancer treatment fears.

Dubbed iConquerFear, the digital programme offers strategies and techniques for managing fears of cancer recurrence. It features five modules containing interactive exercises on goal setting, attention training, and mindfulness.

WHY IT MATTERS

“Getting help to cope with a fear of cancer recurrence is a cancer survivor’s top unmet need, above pain, fatigue and other physical symptoms,” claimed research lead Dr Ben Smith.

About half of all cancer survivors in the world experience major fear of cancer recurrence, associated with psychological distress, poorer quality of life and greater healthcare use. 

Dr Smith, who is also a senior research fellow at South West Sydney Clinical School of University of New South Wales-Sydney Medicine & Health, said that “[e]xisting interventions, while effective, are inaccessible to many Australian cancer survivors, particularly those in rural and remote areas”. Additionally, the already-strained health system lacks the resources to address such a mental health need.

More scalable digital interventions, then, hold a promise to address this gap, according to research co-lead Dr Adeola Bamgboje-Ayodele of the Ingham Institute for Applied Medical Research.

While self-guided digital interventions have the potential to meet a cancer survivor’s mental health needs, existing digital interventions “either don’t use the cognitive behavioural strategies that we know are particularly effective in reducing fears or haven’t been designed with as much input or feedback from cancer survivors,” noted Dr Smith.

For this reason, the research team designed iConquerFear to focus on user experience, interactive exercises and personalised feedback to be more accessible and more scalable compared to existing treatments.

In a recently conducted study of the online treatment, most of the 54 cancer survivor participants have lessened the severity of their fears during and after an intervention while a quarter reported significant clinical improvements in reducing their fears.

“We saw strong initial uptake and engagement and promising reductions in fear recurrence – equivalent in size to what we saw in the face-to-face. It suggests that digital interventions can actually improve access to psychosocial support and facilitate self-management by survivors,” Dr Smith added.

THE LARGER TREND

Ahead of its full-scale rollout in Australia, iConquerFear will be first tested for its effectiveness in a randomised control trial to be conducted in partnership with Ovarian Cancer Australia.

Meanwhile, US-based digital therapeutics company Blue Note Therapeutics has licensed both iConquerFear and ConquerFear programmes to develop a counterpart version for the North American market.

“We are open to exploring commercial models with partners that would maximise the accessibility and impact of iConquerFear in Australia and beyond,” Dr Smith said.

In other news, the Australian government has set aside new funding to continue supporting the psychosocial telehealth services of Ovarian Cancer Australia. The non-profit organisation offers this support through its Teal Support Programme, which has assisted over 400 patients with ovarian cancer since it launched in 2019. With the latest funds, the organisation could support 800 more women, especially those from regional areas, with its telehealth services.

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