New research study aims to better support cancer patients with terminal illness

Posted on 19th February 2018

The University of Chester has been awarded funding by Macmillan Cancer Support for a new research study, to develop a psychological support intervention for cancer patients who have been referred into palliative care services.

The BEACHeS Study Steering Group
The BEACHeS Study Steering Group

A team of researchers at the University of Chester and the University of Edinburgh have been awarded a £34,000 grant for the collaborative project, which will be run in partnership with terminal illness charity Marie Curie. 

The funding will enable Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) based psychological therapy sessions to be delivered to people with cancer who are transitioning into specialist palliative care services. These are patients who have been told that their cancer cannot be cured, but it does not necessarily mean that they have reached the end of life. Living with this knowledge can be accompanied by high levels of psychological distress and poor quality of life. The intervention being developed as part of this study is called BEACHeS which stands for Brief Engagement and Acceptance Coaching in Community and Hospice Settings. 

Previous research led by the University of Chester has already shown that ACT may help cancer survivors to become more resilient to suffering and psychological distress (eg: This pilot work aims to extend that research to patients receiving palliative care.

Palliative care aims to not only manage pain and physical symptoms, but to provide emotional support and care for a patient’s psychological needs too, to help patients maintain the best quality of life possible. ACT is a psychological therapy that aims to help people to get the most out of their lives, whatever their circumstances. As such the research team think this will be a complementary approach to mainstream palliative care.

The pilot study is due to begin in March 2018 and will run for a year. Participants (the patients) will have one-to-one therapy sessions with a psychologist over a six-week period and the researchers will test whether this short intervention has improved their psychological wellbeing. The research team hope that this will lead to a larger programme of work researching the benefits of ACT for people with cancer and other life-limiting conditions.

Nick Hulbert Williams, Professor of Behavioural Medicine at the University of Chester, who is leading the BEACHeS Research Study said:

“Receiving a cancer diagnosis is a huge event in anyone’s life. To then find out that the illness cannot be cured can be psychologically devastating for some people.

“We currently have very little knowledge about how different kinds of psychological therapy can help people at this difficult time, but I know from my own work as a coaching psychologist providing support to this group that ACT seems to bring benefit. This will be one of the first studies that begins to empirically explore the benefits of ACT for this group of patients.

“By improving distress levels in the palliative stage of illness, we hope that our participants may be able to live a more meaningful and high quality of life, regardless of how short their remaining life may be. This may also have benefits for the families of those patients too, in that it may facilitate more open discussions about, and planning for, the end of life.

“We are very excited to be working with both Marie Curie Hospices and Macmillan Cancer Support on this project, as we hope that their involvement will help us to get the intervention out there and used in real world settings, if the data demonstrate it to be a worthwhile approach.”

Dr Anne Finucane, Research Lead for the Marie Curie Hospice, Edinburgh, one of the clinical sites where the research will be delivered, added:

“The diagnosis of a terminal illness is very distressing.  We are delighted to be part of this research study which will increase our knowledge and understanding of the best ways to offer emotional support to people recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. This will ensure that people cared for by Marie Curie will continue to live well and meaningfully, despite the challenges they face.”

The research team are passionate about making sure that the intervention developed as part of this project meets the needs of patients and is delivered at the right time and in the right setting to be considered acceptable by this patient group. To ensure this, the research team are involving patients, informal carers and family members, and healthcare professionals on their study steering group. One of the members of the research team is Sue Millington, a local patient representative on the project. She said:

“My cancer diagnosis made me feel very isolated, like no one could really understand how I felt. It was a time when I felt I had no control, and when everything felt so overwhelming and scary. Using ACT enabled me to learn and use strategies to calm my brain and gain acceptance of what I was going through. I feel privileged to be part of a research study that could help other people at a time when they may feel most isolated and fearful."