Leeza Park, MD: Caring for the whole person

For Eliza “Leeza” Park, MD, caring for people with cancer is not just about the disease - it’s about the person.

Leeza Park, MD: Caring for the whole person click to enlarge Eliza "Leeza" Park, MD

As a psychiatrist and researcher, Dr. Leeza Park works to help patients deal with the social, emotional and psychological factors that impact their cancer journey. Her goal is to help patients build lives that are meaningful to them, while they cope with a serious illness.

“For many people, the emotional burden of cancer is enormous, and that impacts their physical experience,” Park says. “You can’t always separate the physical and emotional experience of the disease.”

Park, a researcher at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and an assistant professor of psychiatry in the UNC School of Medicine, is leading research to identify gaps in psychological care for cancer patients and their families. She directs the psycho-oncology group at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Support Program (CCSP) that provides counseling and other psychological services. These clinicians also work closely with other members of the CCSP to provide financial assistance to patients, recognizing that financial distress is linked to psychological wellbeing. Other services like yoga, acupuncture and massage therapy meet patients’ psychological needs in a holistic way. 

“You can’t just give a pill and tell people to get better,” Park says. “We want to help people build lives that are meaningful and worthwhile for them while living with this serious illness. We strive to identify ways in which someone can feel like a person, to strengthen the relationships that are important to them.”

“As a psychiatrist for patients with cancer, you meet with people during one of the most vulnerable periods of their lives. You work to try to improve their quality of life, their mental health and their wellbeing. It’s very rewarding.” 

As a researcher, Park is particularly interested in studying the needs of parents with terminal cancer. Parental concerns and responsibilities are incredibly important for patients with children, but cancer and its treatment can disrupt that. Park led a study published recently in the journal BMJ Palliative Care that found a need for better end-of-life care to help dying parents cope.

In the study, Park and her collaborators surveyed 344 widowed fathers who had lost a spouse to cancer, and were raising children. They found that mothers with terminal cancer had substantial worries about their children at the end of their lives, and low levels of peacefulness. Thirty-eight percent of mothers had not said goodbye to their children, according to reports from the fathers, and 26 percent were not at peace with dying.

“This is a group of patients who have high levels of distress,” Park says. “We want to create programs that will alleviate some of their concerns, improve communication with their families, improve preparation for end of life, and hopefully decrease the levels of major psychiatric disorders that develop in their spouses and caregivers during bereavement.” 

Park has always liked research and science. She was a history major as an undergraduate at Yale University and pursued her medical degree at the University of Rochester. While she was a medical student, she left New York for a year to do a research fellowship at UNC, and that’s where she found her calling.

During a study of women who experience chronic pelvic pain, Park found she was much more interested in the psychological component of their experience, which led her to psychiatry. After completing her residency training in the Harvard Longwood Psychiatry Residency Training Program, Park did a fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in psychosomatic medicine, and then came to UNC.

Park was happy to return to Chapel Hill during her research year, where she met her husband while he was studying as a graduate student at Duke University. They now have two active boys aged 10 months and 3 years. Being a mom and a doctor is both challenging and rewarding, she says, but she gets a lot of support from her family and colleagues and finds joy in her work.

“I personally derive happiness from the idea of helping people,” Park says. “As a psychiatrist for patients with cancer, you meet with people during one of the most vulnerable periods of their lives. You work to try to improve their quality of life, their mental health and their wellbeing. It’s very rewarding.”