The Power of Listening to Cancer Patients

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.