Elissa Kolva, PhD
“One of the most exciting things I found at the Center is how everyone supports each other and connects. This teamwork and mentorship makes everyone stronger.”May 11, 2020
Elissa Kolva, PhD
Assistant Professor, Division of Medical Oncology
Ludeman Center Seed Grant Recipient
Elissa Kolva, PhD, is combining her passion for patient care and research to build a robust psycho-oncology program at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. This relatively new field helps patients in the CU Cancer Center cope with a serious diagnosis and promotes positive mental health. Dr. Kolva said, “In psycho-oncology, I talk to patients about subjects that are often avoided such as meaning, purpose, hope and hopelessness.” When she first entered the field at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, Dr. Kolva worked with patients in the Department of Urology. “Oftentimes, I was the first person that these men had ever talked to about the stresses surrounding a prostate cancer diagnosis.” Dr. Kolva recalled. “They were struggling with the options of surgery, radiation or watchful waiting.”
Dr. Kolva has always let her clinical experiences guide research questions, and when she joined CU Anschutz in 2016, she found an underserved population. “I started to notice a lot of young female cancer patients often diagnosed with young women’s breast cancer or sarcomas and they were struggling with issues specific to their age group,” said Dr. Kolva. “They were concerned about changes in fertility and parenting while undergoing cancer treatment.” In reviewing the literature, Dr. Kolva also found that women were less likely than men to receive fertility-related information and that there was limited research on psychological support interventions for this population. While the patients were receiving outstanding care for the physical issues related to their cancer, Dr. Kolva knew that she wanted to expand their options for mental health services and create new or adapt psychotherapies to address these issues.
In collaboration with her colleagues and mentors, she started to apply for pilot funding from the Ludeman Center to fully launch a psycho-oncology research program. She was awarded a Ludeman Center seed grant through peer review. This grant allows her to dedicate a portion of her time to researching the relationship between reproductive concerns, psychological distress and sense of meaning and purpose in young women with breast cancer. The Ludeman Center seed grant, which combines funding with mentorship and training, has proven to be a powerful tool to help launch successful research careers for junior faculty.
Mentorship has been an important aspect of Dr. Kolva’s career. “My early mentors showed me that you can be a productive and accomplished scientist and just a really good person too,” said Dr. Kolva. “One of the most exciting things I found at the Ludeman Center is how everyone supports each other and connects. This teamwork and mentorship makes everyone stronger.”
In Dr. Kolva’s clinical program, she observed that pregnancy and fertility issues are often intertwined with a cancer diagnosis. “I once asked a patient when her cancer story began, and she said, ‘when I first took a pregnancy test,” said Dr. Kolva. For some patients, pregnancy and time with their children are coupled with a serious medical diagnosis. The mental health of patients is extremely important as they navigate this time, and Dr. Kolva is developing and testing meaning-centered therapies to help this population. As the team grows, Dr. Kolva hopes to offer mental health care to more patients.
“In the clinic, I noticed an unmet need for many patients. While they received excellent care for their cancer, they still needed mental health support. In our efforts to provide whole person care we needed to do more. By combining clinical care and research, we are changing this and offering new options to patients.”