Posted: April 2010
Staying mentally healthy while physically dealing with cancer.
Unless you’ve been there, it’s difficult to fathom being told ‘you have cancer.’ Yet, cancer can happen to anyone.
“I didn’t expect to hear a cancer diagnosis,” said Wanda Stewart, a patient of Deborah Wienski, MD, who is an oncologist at Missouri Baptist Cancer Center. “No one in my family ever had cancer. I just wanted it out of my body.”
“When I heard my diagnosis, I was in a fog and frightened,” said Cynthia Sutton. “My husband and I tried to be strong for each other.”
Almost one-half of American men and more than one-third of American women will be diagnosed with some type of cancer during their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. And, cancer doesn’t just affect the patient. It’s also felt by family and friends.
Dr. Wienski, who decided when she was in eighth grade to become a physician, said, “What rewards me so much is seeing patients press on and enjoy life even when faced with cancer.”
Besides physically battling the disease, patients and their loved ones must deal with the emotional side of cancer. How can you help yourself, or help someone else?
HAVE A SECOND SET OF EARS.
Dr. Wienski, an oncologist for more than 20 years, recommends that patients bring a family member or trusted friend to all medical appointments, explaining that it can be hard for patients to absorb what the physician is saying when emotions are running high.
Sutton, a cancer survivor and patient of Dr. Wienski, echoed that, “I was overwhelmed. My husband was my ears. He asked the questions. He made my appointments.”
Dr. Wienski said there are advantages to seeing patients in person when conveying news and explaining treatments. “Seeing their faces and reactions helps determine how much detail they understand and want to hear. Sometimes we just need to give a hug or a touch on the shoulder.”
She cautions family members to be careful about the questions they ask in front of the patient. “If the patient hasn’t asked, it may not be fair for the family member to do so.”
CHOOSE A PHYSICIAN YOU TRUST.
“Experience has shown me that ‘not knowing’ causes patients more anxiety than learning of their diagnosis and treatment plan,” said Dr. Wienski. “Patients need to trust in the physician who is treating them, or find another one.” Dr. Wienski said that oncologists try to nourish hope, especially with the broad range of treatments available today. Frequently, patients are given several options, and must make a decision. “Patients will ask me ‘doctor, what would you do?’ And, I sometimes must say I
don’t know - that my decision might be different than theirs,” said Dr. Wienski.
DECIDE WHO TO TELL.
After being diagnosed, cancer patients also must decide who, how much and what to tell. “Patients may think they want privacy, but that can backfire,” said Dr. Wienski. “This is a time when friends and family are a big help.”
When it comes to children, they should be told. “If you don’t tell them, they’ll know something is wrong,” she said. “Simple answers may be all they need. Something like, ‘I have an illness but I am going to be okay. I may have to take some medications and might lose my hair.’”
When it came to deciding, Sutton chose to let almost everyone know except her mother who had Alzheimer’s. “I did tell my daughter and shared the information with my colleagues and church family. I felt like I needed to share it as I needed their support and prayers,” she said.
Stewart, who has had more than one cancer, mentioned another concern – the internet. She planned to tell her daughter once she understood more about her latest diagnosis, but soon realized she needed to tell her right away! Her son already knew and an announcement had been made at her church for prayers. “Although I’m not on Facebook, my husband and other people are,” said Stewart, who didn’t want her daughter to find out before she personally could talk to her.
SHARE YOUR FEELINGS.
“Cancer patients also need friends who will just listen and not offer advice,” said Dr. Wienski.
Support often comes from people who have ‘walked the walk.’ “Ros Hofstein, a social worker at the Missouri Baptist Cancer Center, found someone for me to talk to who had had the same type of cancer,” said Sutton. “She found the perfect person to call me. The journey may not always be the same, but she gave me hope and courage.”
Some patients keep journals. Patients at Missouri Baptist receive a special binder where they can write their thoughts and keep track of appointments and questions for their healthcare providers.
“And, caregivers’ feelings should not be overlooked,” said Sutton. “My husband received support at Missouri Baptist. The staff encouraged him, and that was important.”
UPDATE THOSE WHO CARE.
Cancer patients sometimes have a family member act as a ‘spokesperson’ to update concerned friends. They can post updates on Face book or send emails.
The important thing, according to cancer survivors, is to let people know it is okay to call or email, but to be understanding if the patient is too tired or ill to talk or respond at that time.
ENJOY NORMAL ACTIVITIES.
While cancer patients want people to care, they don’t always want to talk about their cancer. They want to enjoy as many activities and hobbies as they can and did prior to being diagnosed with cancer. “Many patients want to be treated normally and not as someone who is ill,” Dr. Wienski said.
HELPING HANDS AND RESOURCES.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. “I like giving to other people, but it was hard having the tables turned,” Sutton said. Her advice to other cancer patients is: “Don’t be too strong, because you can’t do it by yourself.” Cancer patients often find comfort knowing they are not alone. There are many external resources available to patients and caregivers, including faith-based groups and organizations, such as The Wellness Community and the American Cancer Association. Stewart said that she takes life ‘one day at a time’ and is grateful she hasn’t had much physical pain. Sutton, who is back to work said, “I’m happy to be healthy and now have a different perspective on life. I’m grateful for every day and being given a second chance.” “Most times, I see families come together to give support and love to their sick one,” said Dr. Wienski. “It’s very rewarding to see people care for one another.”
Dr. Deborah Wienski is board-certified in internal medicine and oncology, and is a medical oncologist on staff at Missouri Baptist Cancer Center. She received her medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, and completed her internship and residency at the University of Rochester in New York.