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Facing Forward: Making a Difference in Cancer

  • Posted: 01/20/2011

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Everyday ways

Helping with daily activities
Sharing your experiences
Learning more about cancer
Helping with health care providers
How to begin helping in everyday ways

There are many ways you can help others. This chapter looks at how you can make a difference in everyday ways, like helping someone with daily tasks, learning and teaching, sharing your experiences, or helping others through the health care system.

 Helping with daily activities

  • You can make a big difference in small ways. This includes day-to-day things such as chores and errands. For example, you can:

  • Help people with their grocery shopping or household chores.

  • Offer to baby-sit their children or take care of their pets. You could also offer to take the kids out for awhile.

  • Drive people to their doctors’ appointments. This can be a big help, especially when people have to travel a long distance.

  • Arrange meals, do errands, or mow the lawn for someone who is sick. “We decided to help organize meals after our neighbor got five pans of lasagna in one day,” said a friend of someone with colon cancer.

  • Do things for others that you would have liked people to have done for you.

  • Help them with repair work or other home projects if you’re handy with tools.

  • Read books aloud to others or make a music CD for them.

  • If you enjoy crafts such as knitting or quilting, you can donate scarves and blankets for patients going through chemotherapy or radiation.

 Sharing your experiences

“Giving back has helped my recovery. It gave me something to do and took my mind off what I was going through. I was able to get involved and get moving. When I’m helping others, I don’t have time to think about myself or have any self-pity.”
— Vince, 40, cancer survivor

If you’re reading this book, you probably know that your experience can help others who are struggling. Here are some ways to help:

  • Offer to be a “buddy” to someone who is dealing with cancer. You can do this in person, by telephone, or even over the Internet. Many cancer organizations have support programs that meet online.

  • Ask how you can be helpful to the family and friends of someone who has cancer. Let them know that you care and are ready to listen, help, and share ideas.

  • Become a trained “peer counselor.” This is someone who is trained to help others with the same type of experience or diagnosis. Keep in mind that some cancer organizations suggest, or even require, that people be out of treatment for at least a year before they begin.

  • Get involved with, or start, a cancer support group in your area.

  • Let people know where they can learn more about cancer. Share helpful resources from the National Cancer Institute or other cancer organizations with them.

 Learning more about cancer

“It took me 3 years to set up a local survivors’ group in my area. My support group started with two people in my home and grew to ten. I think it’s important to help people so that they can heal and recover.”
— Irma, 59, cancer survivor

When you learn about cancer, you not only help yourself, but you can also help others by sharing what you know. For example, you can learn about your rights as a person with cancer and share this with others. Or you can help people in their search for information. Here are some ways to get started:

By phone

Many national cancer organizations have toll-free phone numbers. They can answer your questions or send you materials with more information. Some cancer organizations conduct educational programs over the telephone.

In print

There is a lot of written information about cancer in magazines, newspapers, booklets, and books. Some of these print materials are written for the general public, while others are for health professionals and scientists. Visit your local library or hospital resource center, or ask your doctor or nurse about up-todate materials that are written at the right level for you. Many print materials can be accessed online now as well.

Going to meetings, workshops, or classes

Many people help themselves as well as others by going to meetings, workshops, and classes. They can learn about clinical trials, ways to relax, or how to cope with other problems that come up after treatment is over. Ask your local hospital or cancer center about cancer-related programs they offer the general public. Often, you can attend these programs for free or at a low cost.

Over the Internet

“There’s a new study published every day. I want to keep up with the information my wife needs.”
— Ray, husband of a 66-year-old breast cancer survivor

Many people search for cancer information on the Internet. Most organizations have Web sites you can go to for the latest information about cancer.

You may also want to make use of social media. This involves social contact through Web sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and others.

You could subscribe to an organization’s e-mail list and get messages when the site is updated. Some have RSS Feeds that you can sign up for, which allows you to receive breaking news alerts in the cancer area. (To see NCI RSS feeds, go to

Some Web sites offer listservs or chat rooms where people can meet and talk online. These are ways that people interested in cancer can exchange messages about their experiences, concerns, and resources.

If you don’t have access to the Internet at home, you may be able to use computers at your local library. Or ask your doctor, librarian, or a family member or friend to help you find information. You can also call NCI’s Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER and ask them to mail you information from NCI’s Web site.

Remember: The Internet can be a valuable source of information about cancer. But sometimes the information can be false, unreliable, or misleading. Don’t believe everything you see on the Internet. Also, check the privacy statements and settings of the social media sites before signing up. Talk with your doctor about the medical advice you find and make sure the information makes sense for you. To learn more, see Evaluating Online Sources of Health Information.

 Helping with health care providers

If you‘re a cancer survivor or are close to someone with cancer, you know
what it’s like to talk with doctors, nurses, and other health care providers. You
may have learned how to speak up and ask questions—and you can use your
experience to help others. For example, you can:

  • Let people know that they should talk with their doctor about all their concerns—even the ones they may not think are important.

  • Direct them to resources that help people learn ways to talk with their health care team.

  • Help patients and their families get ready for medical appointments. You can suggest that they:
    • Write a list of their questions and bring it with them when they see the doctor.
    • Have pen and paper to take notes about what the doctor says.
    • Bring a friend or family member with them to their appointments to take notes or help listen.
    • Provide a folder or file for any relevant tests. Encourage them to keep it up to date and bring it to every visit.

Going to the doctor

If you offer to go to a doctor’s appointment with someone, make sure you agree on what he or she would like you to do. Ask ahead of time if you should:

  • Stay in the waiting area or go into the exam room with the patient.

  • Ask questions or help explain any words or terms that are hard to understand.

  • Bring paper and pen or a tape recorder to take notes.

  • Offer to sit with the patient or their caregiver during treatment to keep them company.

Ways others have helped where they live

  • A breast cancer survivor saw a need for other patients to know they’re not alone. With funding from her local hospital and donations from area merchants, she made kits to give to women going through cancer treatment. Each kit contains comforting items and information about services in the area.

  • Members of a cancer support group were trained to help at a local hospice. They gave comfort to patients and showed kindness to their friends and family members.

  • Older, trusted members of one community reached out to their neighbors about cancer screening. Known as “lay health advisors,” they encouraged other older adults to get screened for cancer.

  • A hospital organized a “Patient Navigator Program” in which survivors helped people who had cancer but did not have health insurance. They worked together throughout the person’s cancer treatment.

  • To cope with his grief over his wife’s death from lung cancer, one man began sewing quilts in his spare time. To reach people beyond his small town, he decided to auction them over the Internet. As he continues to sew and sell his quilts, he’s also found comfort by donating all the proceeds to lung cancer research.

  • Some groups have found ways to help others who share their faith, background, or culture. A group of African-American women with cancer organized a support group to deal with their unique needs. And a local church started a program to spread the message about the importance of early breast cancer detection.

  • One man used his love of taking pictures and his cancer experience to inspire others. He designed a calendar with peaceful nature photos and quotes of hope to give out to cancer patients in his state.

 How to begin helping in everyday ways

Once you decide that you want to volunteer your time, find out who needs your help and what you can do to get started. Here are some ideas about ways to begin:

  • Let people know that you want to help others. Tell your family, friends, coworkers, and even your health care team that you want to get involved in cancer-related activities. Talk with them about things you like to do and ways you want to help. Ask for their ideas and suggestions.

  • Look at Web resources for setting up communication sites. If you’re good with computers, offer to set up a blog or Web page where friends and family can be updated on the patient’s progress.

  • Find out about volunteer programs where you live. Check with your local hospital or cancer center, clubs, libraries, senior centers, and places of worship to see if they have programs to help people with cancer. If any of these groups have volunteer programs, ask how you can get involved. If there isn’t a program nearby, perhaps you could start one.

  • Get involved with a cancer organization. Contact a cancer-related group that interests you. Talk with the person in charge of volunteers about your interests and experiences.

  • Join a Patient and Family Advisory Board. Hospitals and cancer centers often want survivors and their families to help them develop new programs. When you are on a Patient and Family Advisory Board, you may be asked to give advice on policies and programs and let the organization know how it can improve care for all patients.