Relaxation training for radiation therapy patients

Mr Steven O’Connor1

1Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Melbourne, Australia

Background of the Project: For head and neck cancer patients, the radiation therapy treatment process can be a stressful one. While many patients experience significant side effects such as mouth and skin problems, nausea and overwhelming fatigue, it can be the treatment experience of wearing a customised mask while fixed to a hospital trolley bed, to ensure precise radiation therapy, that they report as causing the most distress. This daily outpatient treatment can be up to seven weeks and be particularly stressful for those patients with anxiety, contributing to missed appointments and the ceasing of treatment altogether.

Project implementation:The Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre’s head and neck social worker and a spiritual care worker collaborated to develop a project designed to deliver basic relaxation training for head and neck patients with the goals of reducing patient stress, improving attendance and treatment completion. The development and implementation of the Project involved complex collaboration with radiation oncologists, radiation therapy nurses and radiation therapists.

Project results: Twenty-eight patients and their medical staff reported that the intervention successfully contributed to their improved radiation therapy experience and attendance. Beyond this enrolled group, professional development in relaxation techniques and relaxation recordings were provided to radiation therapists to incorporate into their practice routine as needed. This enabled further patients to benefit from this intervention.

Discussion of the outcomes and implications: The presentation will focus on the development of the Project, issues that were encountered and implications for the future. The Project is expected to continue to support radiation therapy compliance for head and neck cancer patients, with the potential uptake in other oncological areas. The Project utilised specialist social work skills (systems and project work) and spiritual care related skills (meditation) to deliver its outcomes.


Steven O’Connor has practised as a social worker for over 30 years in a wide range of health and education settings, including HIV/AIDS, alcohol and other drugs, sexuality education and sexual diversity student support and inclusion. Since 2015, he has specialised as a cancer-based social worker, initially in triage cancer social support work and now with head and neck cancer patients. Steven O’Connor is also a published author of young adult fiction.

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