DOD grants $1.1 million to Michigan State University’s School of Social Work to improve psychosocial support for mesothelioma caregivers

June 3, 2024 - Brandon Drain

The Department of Defense (DOD) granted Michigan State University’s School of Social Work and the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation a grant of $1,125,417 to improve psychosocial support for mesothelioma caregivers.

Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer with a poor prognosis that is difficult to diagnose and to treat. The median survival for patients is eight months, and about 40% of patients receive no treatment, according to experts.

Mesothelioma is typically caused by the inhalation of asbestos and is often linked to occupational exposure, with significant levels of exposure found in the military population. It may be diagnosed 30 to 50 years after exposure.

Amanda Woodward“The poor prognosis and the long time between asbestos exposure and onset make mesothelioma unique compared to other cancers,” said Amanda Woodward, an MSU School of Social Work professor.

In addition, mesothelioma patients “struggle with anger and conflicting feelings of loyalty and blame toward longtime employers,” according to Woodward. They also face legal and financial circumstances related to mesothelioma that add complications for the caregivers after their loved one’s death. “All of these things make caregiving especially complicated for mesothelioma caregivers; however, there’s not a lot of research looking specifically at this group.”

The research team, which includes MSU Social Work doctoral students Jen Hirsch and Linda Zhang, wants to address this gap by improving understanding of mesothelioma caregivers’ experience from the time their loved one is diagnosed, through the patient’s death and beyond. In addition, they will create a 10-week-long intervention group led by social workers with experience in oncology and mesothelioma specifically.

“Sessions will include a combination of information sharing, homework and participant reflection, and will draw on the concept of meaning-making, which has been found to be an important aspect of adaptation in bereavement,” said Woodward. The final intervention will be dictated by the results of semi-structured interviews and focus groups with patients, current caregivers, those who have lost a loved one to mesothelioma and other stakeholders, according to Woodward.

“From a research perspective, one benefit is to add to knowledge about mesothelioma caregivers, which is largely missing and therefore makes it hard for health and social service professionals to effectively support them," said Woodward. “Of course, we also hope that the intervention proves to be feasible, ultimately effective at supporting caregivers and something that can be used more broadly.”

This study is slated to proceed over the course of four years, progressing from information gathering to intervention development and then feasibility testing. This study is also directly relevant to the overall intention of the DOD’s Patient Well-Being and Survivorship Award to fill gaps in our understanding of “the psychological health and well-being of those affected by cancer,” with a focus specifically on mesothelioma caregivers.