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COPE Fellow Hannah Katz Prepares for Next Step

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GSPP Communications Team

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Hannah Katz was in the middle of a great junior year at the University of Denver (DU) when the news came... and it wasn't good.

Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. "It was stage one, but it was triple negative, which is the worst kind."

Ten years down the road, the clinical psychology doctoral student's mother is cancer-free, but the experience forever changed her life.

She was inspired to receive specialized training through COPE, the Center for Oncology Psychology Excellence, where students learn to meet the mental health needs of cancer patients and their families. It's only offered at the graduate level at the University of Denver's Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP).

In the coming weeks Katz will begin her pre-doctoral internship (the equivalent of a residency for clinical psychology students) at the University of Kansas Medical Center, the latest step in a long journey of helping cancer patients feel at peace.

While she'll miss DU and Colorado, she adds: "I will get to further develop my clinical and leadership skills. Additionally, I will get to train in a National Cancer Institute designated cancer center to further my Psycho-oncology training."

This unique therapy works alongside the chemo or radiation treatment fighting the disease itself. Students spend time with patients at a clinic on campus, or at hospitals and other area outpatient facilities. Therapy occurs during and after the treatment ends and the patient is in the "survivorship" phase.

In 2018, GSPP seeks to redefine mental health by reaching into traditionally underserved populations and utilizing the unique value of psychology to solve community problems. The work of COPE is central to that effort.

Discussing death is a grim but necessary part of the curriculum.

Katz says a patient might write a letter for a child's future graduation, or make jewelry for a spouse.

"It's still a way for the patient to be a part of their children's or significant others' lives without physically being there."

COPE was started thanks to the generosity of Diane Simard, a Denver businesswoman and breast cancer survivor. She was frustrated to learn that while there are many options to fight the cancer itself, there were scant resources to deal with the mental anguish of the ordeal.

And as program director Dr. Nicole Taylor points out, some patients had psychological challenges even before the diagnosis.

"Cancer doesn't discriminate by only affecting people who are really doing well," she says.

Taylor realizes the experience for her students is valuable, but also emotionally taxing: "I find the greatest joy in training the next generation of students to do this work, and to do it really well."

Katz meanwhile is often asked how she deals with her sometimes stressful work.

But she insists being part of a patient's "journey" is its own reward: "I think it's also the most meaningful work to do, because you're getting to be a part of something really special.