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Screening for Distress

Screening for Distress

The Partnership’s second five-year mandate and the next phase of implementing Canada’s national cancer strategy began in April 2012. The priorities and initiatives for 2012-2017 are outlined in our strategic plan, Sustaining Action Toward a Shared Vision and in the Priorities section of our website. The information below reflects work to the end of March 2012.  

Helping people get the care they need

Many people with cancer report physical symptoms such as fatigue and pain. They may also experience feelings of sadness, fear and loneliness — as well as depression, anxiety and panic. Research indicates that 35 to 40 per cent of cancer patients feel enough distress that they would benefit from additional support services.[1]

Distress is recognized by Accreditation Canada as the sixth vital sign, following heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, temperature and pain. It can often be detected through dialogue with patients and the use of simple, standardized tools, such as a survey that records an individual’s level of pain, depression, anxiety and fatigue. Identifying distress proactively allows clinicians to determine whether a patient requires further assessment or referral for supportive care. This process helps to ensure that people receive the support they need to cope with the psychosocial and practical challenges that often accompany a cancer diagnosis or arise over the course of treatment.

The Partnership is working in collaboration with nine cancer care organizations and jurisdictions (Alberta Health Services, the BC Cancer Agency, Cancer Care Nova Scotia, Northeastern Ontario, CancerCare Manitoba, the PEI Cancer Treatment Centre, Princess Margaret Hospital, the Quebec City Supra Region, and the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency) to develop and adopt resources to support screening for distress.

By increasing access for patients and families to a full range of services they need, screening for distress can help address important needs during the cancer journey. Team members are working in partnership with health-care providers, survivors and cancer patients to offer the support, tools and training needed for local staff and organizations to establish programs that meet the specific needs of local patient populations across Canada.

Results for 2011/12:

  • The Partnership continued to collaborate with eight provinces (Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and Saskatchewan) through the Screening for Distress Implementation Group to implement distress-screening programs and identify knowledge gaps in the implementation and management of this initiative. 
  • The Screening for Distress Implementation Group published three journal articles and presented ten abstracts at national conferences. 
  • The first jurisdictions to initiate Screening for Distress were evaluated. Results will help inform further initiative planning and an updated guide for screening for distress in 2012/14. More than 2,200 health professionals have been trained and 42,000 patients have been screened using the same validated, evidence-based screening tools.
  • The Partnership hosted a workshop in Montreal in June 2011, to help participants develop a planned, systematic approach to the adoption and uptake of pan-Canadian distress management practice guidelines. The meeting was attended by 46 health-care professionals from nursing, social work, and research disciplines from across Canada. 

For more information on this initiative’s results leading up to 2012 and how the work supports the overall cancer control strategy, please read Key Achievements 2007-2012 and see our annual reports and progress reports


[1] Zabora J., Brintzenhofe-Szoc K., Curbow B., Hooker C., Piantadosi S. “The prevalence of psychosocial distress by cancer site.” Psycho-oncology 2001;10(1):19–28.