Student Researches Distress in Cancer Patients


Cassandra Jensen, FCRH ’18, compares the levels of emotional distress exhibited by terminally ill cancer patients of differing ethnicities in her research (Courtesy of Flickr).

By Hannah Gonzalez

Cassandra Jensen, FCRH ’18, compares the levels of emotional distress exhibited by terminally ill cancer patients of differeing ethnicities in her research (Courtesy of Flickr).

When Cassandra Jensen, FCRH ’18, took on an internship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, she didn’t know she would stumble across a wealth of psychological data — information which would form the basis of her research project, titled “Are there ethnic differences in psychological distress in cancer patients?” Mentored by Barry Rosenfield, P.h.D., Sloan Kettering consultant and chair of the psychology department at Fordham, Jensen worked to compare the levels of emotional distress exhibited by terminally ill cancer patients of differing ethnicities.

Jensen, a psychology major, knew she wanted to do research by the beginning of her sophomore year. She secured her internship in Sloane’s department of psychology in the summer of 2016. While on the job, she came across data accumulated from the study of a new style of psychotherapy, which had been ongoing over the past five years. Intrigued by the information, Jensen applied for a Fordham research grant. Then, under the mentorship of Dr. Rosenfield, Jensen began analyzing cancer patients’ emotional experiences with regards to ethnicity, focusing on three major areas: hopelessness, anxiety/depression and quality of life.

The study looked at 436 patients with advanced cancer. Of these, 26.4 percent were male and
73.6 percent were female; 78.3 percent were Caucasian, 12.6 percent were African-American and 9 percent were Hispanic/Latino.
Past research primarily focused on one minority ethnicity by itself, or the comparison of one minority group to Caucasians.

“No other research had really compared multiple ethnicities to each other,” said Jensen.

Questionnaires given to patients during the pyschotherapy study provided the information on their emotional state. “It was relatively easy to get the data,” said Jensen. “We just had to play around with it in the data analyzing program.” Looking over the information, Jensen found that “there were so many ways to manipulate it, to test it.” Jensen focused on ethnic differences as a variable in these cases, controlling for the symptoms they had in order to get a more consistent analysis.

Previous research suggested that ethnic minorities experience greater amounts of psychological distress than Caucasians. Jensen’s study, however, found the reverse. Caucasians reported a greater level of hopelessness and a lower quality of life, though no significant difference in anxiety/depression was reported.

“We were just kind of surprised by the results,” said Jensen. Though the research did not add to the existing narrative of patient distress, Jensen concedes that it raised questions for future research and meta analysis about the demographics of the sample.
Jensen admits the study’s results might have been skewed due to the composition of the sample, attributing the over-representation of women and Caucasians to their access to medical care.

“The percentages affected statistical analysis,” she said. “It goes back to who seeks out state-of-the-art treatment.” If she were to do it again, Jensen would alter the size and composition of the sample, possibly through the pairing of the Sloan sample with that of another program for a more diverse study.
“This specific project is significant because it’s the first of hopefully many that compare ethnicities to one another,” said Jensen. “That type of study can be more difficult, but it’s also worthwhile.”