Karen L. Syrjala

Appointments and Affiliations

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Clinical Research Division
Full Member
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Clinical Research Division
Director of Biobehavioral Sciences
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Clinical Research Division
Co-Director of Survivorship Program
University of Washington
School of Medicine
Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Professional Headshot of Karen L. Syrjala

Mailing Address

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
1100 Fairview Avenue N.
P.O. Box 19024
Seattle, Washington 98109-1024
United States


Phone: (206) 667-4579
Fax: (206) 667-4356


Postdoctoral Fellowship, University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Pain/Behavioral Medicine, 1985.
Ph.D., Boston University, Clinical Psychology, 1983.
M.A., Boston University, Clinical Psychology, 1980.
B.A., Wellesley College, Psychology and English, 1973.

Research Interests

My research has focused on defining long term and late complications of hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, clinical trials to improve outcomes during and after cancer treatment, cancer pain and symptom management, and opioid side effects. As we know, cancer not only attacks organ systems, but also influences neuroendocrine function, neurocognitive function and, directly or indirectly, affects emotions, thinking, behaviors, physical symptoms, family systems - in short the whole person. Our Biobehavioral Sciences research investigates methods of integrating behavioral and biological treatments, with goals of 1) optimizing patients' participation in their own care, 2) reducing symptoms and complications of treatment or the disease, and 3) improving long term outcomes.

At the Center, our research first designed and tested interventions to treat the most common symptoms during cancer treatment. Targeted symptoms included pain, stress and nausea/emesis. Methods included hypnosis, imagery and coping skills training combined with patient-controlled-analgesia. As our research progressed, we identified needs for cancer patients with pain to better understand their treatments, and needs for better scientific understanding of opioid side effects so that cancer patients could receive effective pain relief. Our longitudinal prospective studies out to 10 years have also identified problems in cancer survivors that require more actively integrated medical and behavioral treatments. These problems included long term fatigue, cognitive deficits, and hormone-related outcomes such as menopausal symptoms and sexual dysfunction. All of our intervention research is tested through randomized controlled clinical trials, with interdisciplinary collaborators. In a multi-site trial to enhance recovery after high dose treatment, we have tested interventions provided by telephone, along with print and video materials, to patients around the country. This is the second step in our trials to improve outcomes one to five years after treatment. Other trials examine Internet-based methods for improving communication and surveillance of complications for cancer patients and caregivers.

To achieve our goals of providing cost-effective and time-conserving methods for physicians, nurses, psychologists and other health care providers to treat cancer-related problems, we have developed videotapes and print materials for patients and family members. These materials educate patients and family members living with treatment effects (Relieving Cancer Pain, Focus Forward: Life after Transplant). Dr. Syrjala also has participated in developing guidelines for treating cancer pain including those by the American Pain Society and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

Measures have been needed that adequately assess symptoms so that we can effectively determine appropriate treatment and assess outcomes. We have developed a number of self-report tools for this purpose: Patient Cancer and Treatment Distress; Caregiver Cancer and Treatment Distress, Sexual Function Questionnaire, Family & Work Function, Somatic Side Effects of Opioids, Cognitive & Affective Side Effects of Opioids.

All of this biobehavioral research is interdisciplinary, integrating psychology and psychiatry investigators with our colleagues in pharmacology, anesthesiology, oncology, neurosciences, and rehabilitation medicine.


American Pain Society
American Psycho-social Oncology Society
American Psychological Association
International Association for the Study of Pain
Society of Behavioral Medicine

Previous Positions

Post-Doctoral Fellowship, Pain & Behavioral Medicine, Anesthesiology, Multidisciplinary Pain Center, 1985


  • National Cancer Institute: Interdisciplinary studies to enhance long term survival, 2005 to 2010.
  • National Cancer Institute: Behavioral and biologic mechanisms for musculoskeletal problems in long term cancer survivors, 2005 to 2007.
  • National Cancer Institute: Enhancing recovery from blood & marrow transplantation, 1999 to 2005.
  • National Cancer Institute: Enhancing long-term survival after BMT, 1998 to 2005.

Recent Publications

Ullrich CK, Rodday AM, Bingen K, Kupst MJ, Patel SK, Syrjala KL, Harris LL, Recklitis CJ, Schwartz L, Davies S et al..  2016.  Parent Outlook: How Parents View the Road Ahead as They Embark on Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation for Their Child.. Biology of blood and marrow transplantation : journal of the American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation. 22(1):104-111. Abstract
Glare PA, Davies PS, Finlay E, Gulati A, Lemanne D, Moryl N, Oeffinger KC, Paice JA, Stubblefield MD, Syrjala KL.  2014.  Pain in Cancer Survivors.. Journal of clinical oncology : official journal of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Abstract
Syrjala KL, Jensen MP, Mendoza EM, Yi JC, Fisher HM, Keefe FJ.  2014.  Psychological and Behavioral Approaches to Cancer Pain Management.. Journal of clinical oncology : official journal of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Abstract

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