The Power of Listening to Cancer Patients

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By Melissa Cochran, MS, NP

For my cancer patients, a stem cell transplant is a life-changing event. They cannot work outside the home for a full year; visits to Dana-Farber are about the only excursions allowed. No more trips to the grocery store or dinners at a favorite restaurant.

In our clinic, we have a solid team in place – physicians, nurses, social workers, and nurse practitioners like myself – working together to support and anticipate each cancer patient’s needs along the way. As you can imagine, significant physical and emotional issues can arise for our patients.

A 57-year-old woman I have been seeing weekly for the past several months received a stem cell transplant for leukemia. Being a nurse, she understood the risks involved more fully than most.

During the first three months after her transplant, she felt unwell, with frequent vomiting and lack of appetite.  She also seemed sad, due to her physical symptoms as well as her isolation. She needed my support emotionally as well as clinically. This became especially clear when she brought her husband to clinic for the first time.

Although she didn’t say so, I knew she was concerned about the toll her illness was taking on him.  She wanted him to see how the clinic worked, and to know that she was in good hands.  At first, he was quiet, and then he slowly started asking how things were going. He showed me pictures of their family. We talked about their life together. I listened. I wanted them to know that I was a person, not just a clinician, and that I truly cared about them.

My patient called the next day to tell me how meaningful our talk had been for her husband.  She was crying when she said how much it had helped both of them, and thanked me for taking the time to listen and address their concerns for the future.

This encounter reminded me that healing comes from a full circle – not just the labs, procedures, and medicines, but from something as simple as listening.  It’s not easy to tend to the whole person while focusing on clinical details, but it is vitally important. I keep this lesson close to my heart, and so do my colleagues. I think this is what makes everyone who works at Dana-Farber so special. 

Melissa Cochran, RN, NP, has worked in the Stem Cell Transplant Program at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center since 2007.

6 comments

  1. Cindy Flanders says:

    During my mom’s year long battle with ovarian cancer, she always felt honored as a whole person. She relied on not just the medical expertise of her physicians, nurses, and technicians, but also their compassion and humanity. They never failed her. For that, I am profoundly grateful.

  2. I do not know if this is the place to make this comment but the Title to the article is about listening to the cancer patient.

    I am short on time so forgive me if in cutting right to the chase I sound too frank or rude. I do not mean to be.

    I have aggressive prostate cancer. My sister died of pancreatic cancer and I have witnessed countless other friends and family go through the battle of trying to survive cancer. By saying survive I do not mean still living 5 years after treatment.

    I just want to make a statement, maybe a plea or begging would be a better way of saying it. There has got to be a change towards more curable methods instead of “managing” the disease. Many of the treatments themselves are life changing and quality of life suffers greatly, and with many of them there are no hope in the end for a cure.

    I have been cut, radiated, left in diapers, no manly functions, low energy, and a longer list etc….. You know what I am getting at. And further treatments offer even more lower quality of life, more side effects with no hope of a cure.

    Please start finding curative treatments with less damage to quality of life.

    I personally will not support financially any more research that is not for curative reasons. This “war on cancer” and the billions spent on it has not given us cancer patients the hope that we need. I am 57 years old, widowed, with grandchildren, I am a self employed despite disabilities, doing what I love, photographing nature, I have much I want do, I would like to remarry and share life and love again, be a help to my parents in their last remaining years. I have much left to live for!

    I got hollered and swore at by one oncologist for taking supplements and for asking that they look into a alternative, less hurtful, barbaric treatments.

    Listen to us please I beg. I hope you will and really genuinely push with all your might for real cures!

    Sincerely with no malice,
    Thayden

    • Dear Thayden:

      I cannot agree more with your plea! We hear the same things, and we feel the same hurt when listening to the recipients we have met through our gift giving efforts.

      We’d love to share portions of your story on our website (and/or Facebook posts) if you allow us the permission to do so. It could be anonymous, or not, the decision is yours…

      It helps others to hear what you are going through, and if you allow us the honor to share your words, it may help numerous other people in ways we cannot comprehend, nor quantify…

      It was the words of many different recipient families, that has encouraged, inspired, and pushed us to continued with what what has been a totally unplanned task of helping pediatric cancer patients and their families. We felt it important to be able to help in ways that the biggest organizations, and/or foundations may not…

      Had it not been for the BIG DREAMS of our 8 yr old daughter, Sierra, of wanting to give her girl scout cookies away to others (kids with cancer & their families) this never would have started.

      Most importantly, if it hadn’t been for the families sharing their inner most thoughts, successes, and frustrations, we wouldn’t have continued to do and further support our daughter’s dream to take on a whole new life, one that was totally unplanned, but has proved to be absolutely WONDERFUL…(even though it can also be very stressful, as we never planned to become a business, or more accurately put, a non-profit organization.)

      Thayden, we are listening and hearing your frustrations and your desires. We want to help. Please know that we are an all volunteer, non-profit organization, founded by your 8 yr old daughter last Feb 2012, and I stated before, this is all an unplanned venture, so we can love all the support we receive… We call ourselves “Gifts of Cheer” and have stayed true to our desire of wanting to stay an all volunteer effort in which we have no paid position, not even me!

      Thayden, thank you for sharing your thoughts. We hear you as you share what is most likely: your biggest struggle to date in life, with the unthinkable. As such, please accept our invitation to politely decline our request to help others by sharing your story and words, as we hear your pain and DO NOT want to add to it.

      I, myself, have lived with chronic pain and numerous health conditions, so I know what it is like to suffer in silence AND to be belittled, degraded and humiliated by by own doctors from times in the past. And, know how equally difficult it is when the ones you need to vent to, your friends and family, simply don’t get it, as they have not walked the walk…

      You are dealing with what no person should have to go through… Please know, Thayden, we are here to listen and help in the ways that we are currently able…

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      -Jennifer

      PS The suggestions offered Dana-Farber on 2/13/2013 may be hard to hear, but could be make a world of difference for you… Maybe not in the short run, but over a longer period of time, you may be able to say that acting upon their suggestions was one of the best decision you could have made…

      I hope this is true, and until we chat, please know we will have you and your family in our daily prayers.

      Jennifer Klug
      Director
      Gifts of Cheer

  3. Dana-Farber says:

    Dear Thayden,
    You have certainly faced a lot of challenges — too many for one person. We all wish for more progress on the cancer front. Here are three suggestions to support you in the meantime:
    1. Seek counseling from a psychologist or social worker. If you are a Dana-Farber patient, this is available to you here: http://www.dana-farber.org/Adult-Care/Treatment-and-Support/Treatment-Centers-and-Clinical-Services/Psychosocial-Oncology.aspx
    2. Consider joining a support group for prostate cancer patients: http://www.dana-farber.org/Adult-Care/Treatment-and-Support/Patient-and-Family-Support/Adult-Support-Groups.aspx. If you are local, you can join the Dana-Farber group without being a patient.
    3. Consider joining CancerConnect to have online conversations with other cancer patients: http://www.dana-farber.org/My-Dana-Farber/Dana-farber-cancerconnect.aspx
    Best wishes from the Dana-Farber team

  4. What an amazing article and forum! Great job in spreading the importance of helping patients in ways that many fail to realize…

    Sincerely,
    Jennifer Klug
    Director with the Gifts of Cheer Non-Profit Organization

  5. Abby Gladstone-Strobel says:

    Thank you for writing this article and most importantly for seeing your patients AND their families as whole people. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. Thank you for the vital work you are doing to improve the well being of your patients and their families. Treating people like human beings, bringing compassion and kindness into your interactions with them is SO important.
    For professionals on the job this may be an ordinary day – but for patients and families it can be one of the scariest and most challenging in their lives and that’s when the tone, attitude, and demeanor with which information or treatment is delivered, or a question is answered ….can make the difference between comfort and hope, vs. added stress, increased anxiety, or a lack of trust. Thank you again!!

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