DENVER (KDVR) — Any parent can tell you: Young kids tend to ask a lot of questions. 

Kate Showalter said her 4-year-old daughter Runi is no exception, as they paint planets and animals inside their Denver home. But recently, those questions have been tougher to answer, after Showalter received a terminal diagnosis for a rare form of cancer. 

“We didn’t tell her that I had the terminal diagnosis, but when she heard me screaming and crying a lot … she put two and two together,” Showalter said. “She started asking me if I was going to die soon.”

Showalter said at first, she struggled with how to answer those questions.

“They are just heartbreaking conversations with a 4-year-old,” she said.

In August, she joined a new therapy group at UCHealth, specifically for parents with advanced cancer. It’s the first time the state’s largest hospital system has placed so much focus on not just physical health, but on mental health.

Cancer patients risk mental health concerns

“What we now recognize is that individuals with cancer are at an increased risk for mental health concerns,” Erin Baurle said. “Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and we are growing new programs to help address that.”

Baurle is the medical director for Oncology Counseling Services, which is now providing roughly 10% of all cancer patients at the hospital with mental health support.

“One of the benefits of group therapy is people are in these cohorts where the others immediately understand their experience,” Baurle said. “So they often leave that first session feeling like, I’m finally understood, I’m finally heard.”

Showalter was one of the first to sign up and has been attending weekly, virtual sessions since August. She said the impact has been huge. 

“Finding people who are going through the same thing was instrumental to dealing with all of this,” Showalter said. “Once I talk to them and release all of that emotion, I’m able to really get through the week.”

‘Stress impacts the immune system’

Showalter said doctors initially told her most people with her type of cancer only live about seven months. That was 15 months ago, and she continues to see positive results at her check-ins.

She credits a combination of medical and mental treatment and is encouraging others in a similar situation to seek help.

Baurle said research still needs to be done to see if the mental support is improving outcomes, but she also said she wouldn’t be surprised if it was.

“We know that stress impacts the immune system, and cancer patients want to have a strong immune system, so engaging in mental health care and receiving good social support care can help,” Baurlesaid. 

UCHealth recently launched another group for caregivers and is hoping to expand the program even more.