All of us, practically without exception, have been in this situation: someone you love finds out they have cancer.
They may be in the hospital or at home. You’d like to visit, but you’re not sure what to do or to say. It’s really uncomfortable. So you buy a few tabloid magazines, perhaps some flowers and then hit the road.
It’s hard not to be flooded with images of what you are afraid will happen. Lots of testing, some surgery, many rounds of chemotherapy, and many visits for radiation therapy.
Even with a full response to the treatment, your friend or family member will find themselves really tired and very frightened. They will have lost (or gained) a lot of weight and probably hair. They won’t look or feel like their usual self.
And what are you supposed to say? That they’ll be fine? You, nor anyone else, can predict that.
This scenario does not have to continue. Much has happened in the world of cancer treatment. Many of these advances, low tech and high tech, do not get the same degree of publicity than a stellar new drug. But the field has moved along to caring for people with cancer, more than just extending survival.
The National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) Program accounts for about 12 million cancer survivors alive in the United States today, with an expected 22 million by the year 2022. That’s a large group of us.
Well done studies, both large and small and thought leaders in oncology have taught us a new pathway for patients and their loved ones to take. For virtually every patient undergoing cancer treatment, it is no longer necessary to wait until after treatment is over to feel and get better.
Tailored activity programs (no one likes to hear the word exercise), solid nutritional interventions during, not just after treatment, and a little self-direction goes a very long way to prevent the scenario described above from happening — and if it starts, keep it from getting severe.
Visiting someone you love with cancer can be paradoxically uncomfortable. We don’t have a good script or know what to say. Patients often balk when innocently asked, “How are you?” The pat reply is generally, “Okay.”
Our more vocal, or more candid family and friends may think, “How could I possibly be okay? I have cancer!” But they may or may not be willing to share their innermost thoughts.
Sometimes, in order to be supportive, we automatically slip into blanket reassurance. “You’ll be fine” may be a reflexive reply, but may not be of genuine comfort, since no one may know what the outcome will be with full certainty.
The most important thing, surprisingly, is just being there. A presence is both distracting and consoling. And simple.
Stewart Fleishman, MD, is the former Director of Cancer Supportive Services at the Continuum Cancer Centers of New York and the Associate Chief Medical Officer of Continuum Hospice Care-Jacob Perlow Hospice. His practice was focused on pain management, symptom control and palliative care. Dr. Fleishman’s was actively involved in research focused on quality of life and symptom control in people with cancer, and serves on national committees dedicated to this work. He is Board Certified in both Hospice and Palliative Medicine and Psychiatry/Neurology.
Dr. Fleishman’s book Learn to Live Through Cancer: What You Need to Know and Do presents a step-by-step guide to improve the length and quality of life for cancer survivors, helping them to manage the variety of physical, emotional, and spiritual issues they face proactively.
Dr. Fleishman also writes for Demos Health Publishing’s blog.