7 Tips to Remember When Visiting Cancer Patients

When we are sick, the kindness of others carries us through. Visits from those we love provide comfort and a hand to hold. But for Cindy Hale, healing meant limiting contact with family and friends.

Hale underwent an allogeneic stem cell transplant in 2002, leaving her immunocompromised – with a weakened immune system. Cancer patients in general are at risk for acquiring infection as a result of their underlying disease or from chemotherapy. This is why it is so important for patients, visitors, and staff to take an active role in infection prevention, according to Susan O’Rourke, RN, of the Center for Patient Safety at Dana-Farber. “This needs to be a team effort,” she says.

“One of the biggest issues that we faced is that we didn’t want anyone to feel responsible if I happened to get sick after someone had been in to see me in the hospital,” Hale says. “This is why we really restricted who I met up with inside.”

Cindy Hale (at right) underwent an allogeneic stem cell transplant at Dana-Farber in 2002, requiring extra precautions afterward to protect her fragile immune system. She and husband J.D. Hale completed their 12th Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC) in 2012. It was daughter Rosie’s first PMC.

If you are visiting someone with a compromised immune system, here is what you should know:

Make sure you are healthy.

“The common cold can be a risk for our patients,” says O’Rourke. If you feel sick, stay at home and plan a visit for when you’re better. Always follow respiratory etiquette — cough or sneeze into a tissue or your sleeve, wash your hands (see next tip), and wear a surgical mask if symptoms are persistent.

Wash your hands.

This is the foundation of infection control, says O’Rourke. Visitors and family should wash their hands or use an alcohol-based hand antiseptic, like Purell, before and after patient contact.

Be selective about food items.

“Instead of bringing home-cooked foods, bring something commercially packaged,” suggests Hale, whose stem cell transplant was part of treatment for myelodysplastic syndrome. In some instances, patients’ diets are regulated to “minimize risk while they’re vulnerable,” says O’Rourke.

No plants or flowers, please.

Walk through waiting rooms or clinics at Dana-Farber and you’ll see clinical teams, infusion spaces, smiling volunteers, glass art by Dale Chihuly — but no plants or flowers. Plants and flowers can harbor fungal spores that place patients at risk for infection, according to O’Rourke. For alternative gift ideas, consider magazines, books, games, and movies.

If you’re a patient at Dana-Farber, visit the Morse Conservatory. Immunocompromised patients who want to spend time in nature can visit Dana-Farber’s Richard P. and Claire W. Morse Conservatory, an enclosed glass area that overlooks the Healing Garden. A sanctuary for immunocompromised patients, the conservatory is a plant-free environment. “Here, they can enjoy the visuals but not have to worry about the plants,” says O’Rourke.

Head outside.

After patients are discharged home, ongoing precautions protect their fragile immune systems as they continue their recovery. Because they are advised to avoid public places like movie theaters and grocery stores where they may come into contact with people who are sick, you should plan for outdoor activities.

“Be ready to go outside because that is a ‘free’ environment for the patient,” says Hale. Once home, Hale moved Thanksgiving outside so her family could celebrate together. “We also set up a fun family church in our house in front of the fire for Christmas,” she says. With her son dressed up as a minister, the Hale family “sang carols together with candlelight and all said prayers to keep the Christmas Eve feel.”

Adjust the length of your visit as needed.

People with cancer often feel fatigued. Check in with them to see how they are feeling and time your visit accordingly.

Visitors are welcome during a hospital stay. And while that bouquet of flowers should stay at home, knowing how to keep your loved one safe is the greatest gift.