The Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences’ research activity encompasses issues related to cancer prevention, detection, and treatment. These issues include reduction of cancer risk behaviors, adherence to cancer screening guidelines, symptom management, treatment decision making, palliative care, rehabilitation, survivorship, and increasing access to cancer care for members of ethnic minorities. The department is dedicated to research and training in the psychological and behavioral aspects of cancer and allied diseases.

The research mission of the department is to investigate novel strategies that promote each individual’s contribution to his or her health through behavioral, psychological, social, and community factors.

In fulfillment of this mission, the list of research being conducted encompasses:

  • Basic psychological, social, and behavioral research to improve understanding of the theoretical bases for cancer prevention, symptom management, and quality of life; and the development and refinement of validated measurement tools to assess patient-focused outcomes.
  • Applied research to evaluate innovative behavioral and psychosocial interventions for improving individual, familial, and community impact on health and delivery of healthcare services.
  • A new communication skills laboratory focused on teaching and research of clinician-patient communication skills.

Research Accomplishments and Current Initiatives

Significant advances have been made in understanding the impact of cancer diagnosis and treatment on psychological adjustment and other quality-of-life indicators. The prevalence, nature, and management of the major types of psychological distress and psychiatric disorders in cancer patients have been described by stage, site, and treatment. Valid and reliable tools have been developed to measure quality of life, psychological distress, and spiritual coping. Psychological interventions have been developed and have proven effective against distress, anticipatory nausea, post-traumatic stress responses, and procedure-related pain. In addition to the critical focus on the psychiatric and pain aspects of active cancer care, there has been a longstanding attention to identifying the physical rehabilitation and psychosocial needs of the growing number of pediatric and adult cancer survivors.

Studies examining long-term psychosocial sequelae following cancer treatment have documented that approximately 20 percent of long-term cancer survivors report clinically significant levels of psychological distress with commensurate impairment in quality of life. Memorial Sloan Kettering’s research acknowledges the central role of the family in cancer prevention, coping with treatment, palliative care, and survivorship. Psychosocial interventions to promote adaptation of patients and family caregivers have been developed and are under investigation. Finally, there is a strong emphasis on identifying and addressing psychosocial barriers to adopting health-promoting and cancer prevention behaviors and adhering to current cancer screening recommendations. Much of this work focuses on enhancing motivation for smoking behavior change.

Behavioral and Psychosocial Research Consultation Program

The Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences recently developed a Behavioral and Psychosocial Research Consultation Program. This program seeks to assist Memorial Sloan Kettering investigators in addressing behavioral and psychosocial issues in cancer research, and to ensure that research conducted at our Center incorporates appropriate, state-of-the-art behavioral and social science theory and methods. The Behavioral and Psychosocial Consultation Program provides an organizational and administrative structure to facilitate and enhance behavioral and social sciences research throughout the Memorial Sloan Kettering scientific community.

The program fosters communication and collaborative exchange among Memorial Sloan Kettering investigators by providing research consultation and technical support to all investigators. All Behavioral Sciences faculty are members of the Consultation Program, which meets every other week to discuss active consultations as well as ongoing advances in psycho-oncology research. A full-time research coordinator manages the activities of the Behavioral and Psychosocial Consultation Program and has created an infrastructure to support the activities of the consultation program, including the creation of a resource library. This library includes a measures database with copies (electronic or hard copy) of several hundred measures, summaries of each measure’s psychometric properties, and scoring information.

Current Research Initiatives

The following six synergistic areas are highlighted as current research priorities: communication skills; neurocognitive psychology; psychotherapy; cancer prevention; community outreach; and observational/symptom studies and pharmacotherapy. The diagram at the right shows the collaboration between each program.

  • Neurocognitive & Functional MRI Program

    There is a critical need for large-scale, longitudinal studies of treatment-induced cognitive changes that include appropriate neuropsychological tests batteries and comparison groups and utilize appropriate statistical methods. Memorial Sloan Kettering provides a unique environment for conducting these types of studies.

  • Psychotherapy Laboratory

    This laboratory is involved in the microdissection of the aspects of therapy that prove therapeutic.

  • Cancer Prevention & Health Promotion

    Health beliefs and behaviors are critically important to virtually all cancer prevention and control efforts including reduction in cancer risk behaviors, adherence to cancer screening guidelines, treatment decision-making, and cancer risk assessment and communication. Current research activities focus on several behavioral and psychosocial aspects of cancer prevention and control, particularly the prevention and control of tobacco-related cancers through early detection and smoking cessation.

  • Disparities & Community Outreach

    Overcoming cultural and institutional barriers to the participation of minority patients in clinical trials is a central focus of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

  • Immigrant Health & Cancer Disparities Service

    This service works to identify the causes of health and cancer disparities among underserved populations and to develop solutions to alleviate them.

  • Observational/Symptom Studies & Pharmacotherapy Program

    The current foci of research include integration of quality of life as a secondary endpoint in cancer treatment studies and developing effective post-treatment interventions for improving the long-term adjustment of patients and their families.