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Taking Time: Support for People with Cancer

  • Reviewed: 05/15/2014

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People Helping People

Family and Friends
Other People Who Have Cancer
Support Groups
Spiritual Help
People in Health Care
People in the Hospital
Caregivers
Summing Up: People Helping People

Even though your needs are greater when you have cancer, it can be hard to ask for help to meet those needs.

To get the help you need, think about turning to:

  • family and friends
  • others who also have cancer
  • people you meet in support groups
  • people from your spiritual or religious community
  • health care providers
  • caregivers

No one needs to face cancer alone. When people with cancer seek and receive help from others, they often find it easier to cope.

You may find it hard to ask for or accept help. After all, you are used to taking care of yourself. Maybe you think that asking for help is a sign of weakness. Or perhaps you do not want to let others know that some things are hard for you to do. All these feelings are normal. As one man with cancer said:

"I had always been the strong one. Now I had to turn to others for help. It wasn't easy at first, but the support of others helped me get through a lot of hard times."

People feel good when they help others. However, your friends may not know what to say or how to act when they're with you. Some people may even avoid you. But they may feel more at ease when you ask them something specific, like to cook a meal or pick up your children after school. There are many ways that family, friends, other people who have cancer, spiritual or religious leaders, and health care providers can help. In turn, there are also ways you can help and support your caregivers.

Family and Friends

Family and friends can support you in many ways. But, they may wait for you to give them hints or ideas about what to do. Someone who is not sure if you want company may call "just to see how things are going." When someone says, "Let me know if there is anything I can do," be honest. For example, tell this person if you need help with an errand or a ride to the doctor's office.

Family members and friends can also:

  • keep you company, give you a hug, or hold your hand
  • listen as you talk about your hopes and fears
  • help with rides, meals, errands, or household chores
  • go with you to doctor's visits or treatment sessions
  • tell other friends and family members ways they can help

A little help is better than a lot of pity.
--Celtic Proverb

Other People Who Have Cancer

Even though your family and friends help, you may also want to meet people who have cancer now or have had it in the past. Often, you can talk with them about things you can't discuss with others. People with cancer understand how you feel and can:

  • talk with you about what to expect
  • tell you how they cope with cancer and live a normal life
  • help you learn ways to enjoy each day
  • give you hope for the future

Let your doctor or nurse know that you want to meet other people with cancer. You can also meet other people with cancer in the hospital, at your doctor's office, or through a cancer support group.

To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.
--Chinese Proverb

Support Groups

Cancer support groups are meetings for people with cancer and those touched by cancer. They can be in person, by phone, or on the Internet. These groups allow you and your loved ones to talk with others facing the same problems. Some support groups have a lecture as well as time to talk. Almost all groups have a leader who runs the meeting. The leader can be someone with cancer or a counselor or social worker.

You may think that a support group is not right for you. Maybe you think that a group won't help or that you don't want to talk with others about your feelings. Or perhaps you're afraid that the meetings will make you sad or depressed.

Support groups may not be for everyone. Some people choose to find support in other ways. But many people find them very helpful. People in the groups often:

  • talk about what it's like to have cancer
  • help each other feel better, more hopeful, and not so alone
  • learn about what's new in cancer treatment
  • share tips about ways to cope with cancer

As one woman said,

"I can't tell you what a pleasure it was when I first sat down with other cancer patients and heard my own fears, worries, and joys coming from their lips. You can be completely honest with these people. I'd leave some of these sessions almost dizzy with relief."

Types of Support Groups

  • Some groups focus on all kinds of cancer. Others talk about just one kind, such as a group for women with breast cancer or a group for men with prostate cancer.
  • Groups can be open to everyone or just for people of a certain age, sex, culture, or religion. For instance, some groups are just for teens or young children.
  • Some groups talk about all aspects of cancer. Others focus on only one or two topics such as treatment choices or self-esteem.
  • Therapy groups focus on feelings such as sadness and grief. Mental Health professionals often lead these types of groups.
  • In some groups, people with cancer meet in one support group and their loved ones meet in another. This way, people can say what they really think and feel and not worry about hurting someone's feelings.
  • In other groups, patients and families meet together. People often find that meeting in these groups is a good way for each to learn what the other is going through.
  • Telephone support groups are where everyone dials in to a phone line and are linked together to talk. They can share and talk to others with similar experiences from all over the country. There is usually little or no charge.
  • Online support groups are "meetings" that take place by computer. People meet through chat rooms, listservs, or moderated discussion groups and talk with each other over e-mail. People often like online support groups because they can take part in them any time of the day or night. They're also good for people who can't travel to meetings. The biggest problem with online groups is that you can't be sure if what you learn is correct. Always talk with your doctor about cancer information you learn from the Internet.

If you have a choice of support groups, visit a few and see what they are like. See which ones make sense for you. Although many groups are free, some charge a small fee. Find out if your health insurance pays for support groups.

Where to Find a Support Group

Many hospitals, cancer centers, community groups, and schools offer cancer support groups. Here are some ways to find groups near you:

  • Call your local hospital and ask about its cancer support programs.
  • Ask your social worker to suggest groups.
  • Do an online search for groups.
  • Look in the health section of your local newspaper for a listing of cancer support groups.

Spiritual Help

Many people with cancer look more deeply for meaning in in their lives. Spirituality means the way you look at the world and make sense of your place in it. Spirituality can include faith or religion, beliefs, values, and "reasons for being."

Being spiritual can mean different things to everyone. It is a very personal issue. Most people are spiritual in some way, like attending a church, temple, or mosque. Others are spiritual through teaching or volunteer work. And others find it in different ways that are special to them.

Cancer can affect people's spirituality. Some people find that cancer brings a new or deeper meaning to their faith. Others feel that their faith has let them down. For example, you may:

  • struggle to understand why you have cancer
  • wonder about life's purpose and how cancer fits in the "fabric of life"
  • question your relationship with God

Many people find that their faith is a source of comfort. They find they can cope better with cancer when they pray, read religious books, meditate, or talk with members of their spiritual community. Others like to take time for themselves. They write in a journal, read comforting things, or simply reflect. The wife of a man with cancer said:

"I could not handle my husband's illness on my own. It's real hard when I have my down times. But most of the time, my faith gives me strength and some sense of peace."

Many people also find that cancer changes their values. The things you own and your daily duties may seem less important. You may decide to spend more time with loved ones, helping others, doing things in the outdoors, or learning about something new.

One who is contented is not always rich.
--Spanish Proverb

People in Health Care

Most cancer patients have a treatment team of health providers who work together to help them. This team may include doctors, nurses, social workers, pharmacists, dietitians, and other people in health care. Chances are that you will never see all these people at the same time. In fact, there may be health providers on your team who you never meet.

Doctors

Most people with cancer have two or more doctors. Chances are, you will see one doctor most often. This person is the leader of your team. He or she not only meets with you but also works with all the other people on your treatment team.

Make sure to let your doctor know how you're feeling. Tell him or her when you feel sick, are depressed, or in pain. (To learn more, see "Pain Scales and Pain Journals"). When doctors know how you feel, they can:

  • figure out if you are getting better or worse
  • decide if you need other drugs or treatments
  • help you get the extra support you need

Ask your doctor how often he or she will see you, when you will have tests, and how long before you know if the treatment is working.

Nurses

Most likely, you will see nurses more often than other people on your treatment team. If you're in the hospital, they will check in on you many times a day. If you are at home, visiting nurses may come to your house and help with your treatment and care. Nurses also work in clinics and doctor offices.

You can talk with nurses about your day-to-day concerns. They can tell you what to expect, such as if a certain drug is likely to make you feel sick. You can also talk to them about what worries you. They can offer hope, support, and suggest ways to talk with family and friends about your feelings.

Nurses work with all the other health providers on your treatment team. Let them know if you need or want more help.

Pharmacists

Pharmacists not only fill prescriptions but also can teach you about the drugs you are taking. They can help you by:

  • talking with you about how your drugs work
  • telling you how often to take your drugs
  • teaching you about side effects and how to deal with them
  • warning you about the danger of mixing drugs together
  • letting you know about foods you shouldn't eat or things you shouldn't do, like being in the sun for too long

Dietitians

People with cancer often have trouble eating or digesting food. Eating problems can be a side effect from cancer drugs or treatments. They can also happen when people are so upset that they lose their appetite and don't feel like eating.

Dietitians can help by teaching you about foods that are healthy, taste good, and are easy to eat. They can also suggest ways to make eating easier, such as using plastic forks or spoons so food doesn't taste like metal when you're having chemo. Ask your doctor or nurse to refer you to a dietitian who knows about the special needs of cancer patients.

Social Workers

Social workers assist patients and families with meeting their daily needs such as:

  • talking about your cancer with your family and other loved ones
  • dealing with your feelings such as depression, sadness, or grief
  • problem-solving and coping with stress
  • finding support groups near where you live
  • dealing with money matters, like paying the bills
  • talking about your cancer or other work issues with your boss
  • filling out paperwork, such as advance directives or living wills (For more information about advance directives and living wills, see Living Each Day).
  • learning about health insurance, such as what your policy covers and what it does not
  • finding rides to the hospital, clinic, or doctor's office
  • setting up visits from home health nurses

Patient Educators

Patient or health educators can help you learn more about your cancer. They can find information that fits your needs. Patient educators are also experts in explaining things that may be hard to understand. Many hospitals and treatment centers have resource centers run by health educators. These centers contain books, videos, computers, and other tools to help you and your family. These tools can help you understand your type of cancer, your treatment choices, side effects, and tips for living with and beyond your cancer. Ask your doctor or nurse about talking to a patient educator.

Psychologists

Most people are very upset when they face a serious illness such as cancer. Psychologists can help by talking with you and your family about your worries. They can not only help you figure out what upsets you but also teach you ways to cope with these feelings and concerns.

Let your doctor or nurse know if you want to talk with a psychologist who is trained to help people with cancer. Many social workers can also fulfill this role.

Psychiatrists

Sometimes people with cancer are depressed or have other psychiatric (mental health) disorders. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe drugs for these disorders. They can also talk with you about your feelings and help you find the mental health services you need.

Let your doctor know if you feel like you need to meet with a psychiatrist.

Licensed Counselors and Other Mental Health Professionals

Licensed counselors, pastoral care professionals, spiritual leaders, nurse practitioners, and other mental health professionals also help people deal with their feelings, worries, and concerns. For instance, they can:

  • help you talk about feelings such as stress, depression, or grief
  • lead support groups and therapy sessions
  • act as a "go-between," such as with your child's school or your boss at work
  • refer you to other health providers and services near where you live

Talk with your doctor or contact your local cancer center to find mental health professionals near you.

People in the Hospital

Many hospitals have people on staff to help make your stay a little easier.

Patient advocates can help when you have a problem or concern that you don't feel you can discuss with your doctor, nurse, or social worker. They can act as a bridge between you and your health care team.

Patient navigatorsare people who help patients and families deal with cancer care. They may help you with forms, making appointments, getting rides, or anything else that can make your health care easier.

Discharge planners work with you and your family to help you get ready to leave the hospital. The discharge planner helps with tasks like making follow-up appointments and making sure you have things you need at home.

Volunteers often visit with patients in the hospital and offer comfort and support. They may also bring books, puzzles, or other things to do. Many volunteers have had cancer themselves. Let a hospital staff member know if you want to meet with a volunteer.

Caregivers

Caregivers are the people who help with your daily tasks such as bathing, getting dressed, or eating. Caregivers are often family members or close friends. Just like you, your caregivers need help and support. Ways to help your caregiver include:

  • building a team
  • keeping your caregivers informed
  • finding extra help
  • doing what you can to help your caregiver
  • keeping your sense of humor

There is no one-way friendship.
--Maasai (African) Proverb

Build a Team

Build a team of caregivers so that you don't have to depend on just one person. With a team, people can take turns with tasks such as:

  • washing your hair or giving you a backrub
  • going food shopping or cooking a meal for you
  • driving you to the doctor's office
  • doing errands like going to the bank or post office
  • cleaning the kitchen or mowing your lawn
  • picking up your children after school

Keep Your Caregivers Informed

Make sure your caregivers know about your treatment and care. Ask your doctor or nurse to talk with the person who helps you the most. Suggest they talk about your cancer and its treatment and also what to do in case of an emergency.

You can help by:

  • Making a list of important phone numbers. This list should have the phone numbers of your doctor, nurse, pharmacist, family members, neighbors, friends, and spiritual leaders. Keep copies of this list next to each phone in your house.
  • Letting your caregivers know about the drugs you take. Make a list of all your drugs. Include the name of each drug, as well as how much of this drug you take and how often you need to take it. Be sure to also let your caregivers know about side effects to watch for and if you have any drug allergies. Also make sure that you keep your list up-to-date.
  • Telling your caregivers about important paperwork. Let your caregivers know where you keep a copy of your insurance policies, social security papers, living will or advance directive, and power of attorney form. (For more information about advance directives, living wills, and power of attorney see "Living Each Day".)

Find Help Where You Live

Many towns have community volunteers. These people offer help to others near where they live or work. Here are some ways to find volunteers:

  • Look in your local newspaper.
  • Ask at your hospital, library, or place of worship.
  • Call your state or local health department.
  • Contact the Cancer Information Service (see "Resources for Learning More".) and ask how to find volunteer programs near you.

Some towns also have services such as respite care, home care, and hospice.

Respite Care programs arrange for someone else to stay with you while your caregivers take time off. To learn more about respite care, call your local hospital, home care agency, or hospice program. For ways to find out more, see "Resources for Learning More".

Home Care programs arrange for you to receive skilled nursing care or help with personal tasks such as bathing or dressing in your own home. Your doctor needs to order these services. Talk with your doctor or nurse if you want to learn more.

Hospice can be a great source of comfort and support to people who are dying. It can help with medical care and be a way for people who are dying and their families to talk about their feelings. In some towns, hospice can also help with respite care. Let your doctor know if you want to learn more about a hospice near you.

When you have no choice, mobilize the spirit of courage.
--Jewish Proverb

Take Care of Your Caregivers

Cancer and its treatment are hard on everyone, even the people who take care of you. Sometimes caregivers become run down and get sick from the stress. Encourage your caregivers to take time off so they can do errands, enjoy hobbies, or simply have a rest.

Your caregivers might want to join a support group and meet others who are also caring for people with cancer. To find a group nearby, contact your local hospital or cancer center.

Watch for signs of depression in your caregivers. If you think that one of them is depressed, talk to him or her about it. Urge your caregiver to seek professional help. Let him or her know that other people can help you while they are taking care of themselves. To learn more about the signs of depression, see Sadness and Depression.

Keep Your Sense of Humor

If you like to joke with your friends and family, don't stop now. It's okay to laugh at things that make you upset. For many people, humor is a way to gain a sense of control. A woman who just had cancer surgery said,

"I had a lot of tubes and such hooked up to me after my surgery, and I could tell it made some of my visitors uncomfortable. When I noticed them staring at all the high-tech stuff, I'd make a joke about being the 'Bionic Woman.' They'd laugh at that and relax, and then we'd be able to talk."

One kind word can warm three winter months.
--Japanese Proverb

And remember to say "thank you." Let your caregivers know that you value their help, support, and love.

Summing Up: People Helping People

People who have cancer often find that their needs change because of their cancer. The tasks of daily life become harder to manage. Feelings can be intense. And spiritual questions loom larger than ever before.

Even though their needs are greater, it is hard for many people with cancer to ask for help. Many people do not know where to look for the help they need.

People you can turn to for help include:

  • Family and friends. Most people are happy to find out that something they have to offer--a meal, a ride to the doctor, a phone call--is helpful to you. They may want to offer you help but do not know what you need or want.
  • Others who also have cancer. People who have been through cancer often share a special bond with one another. Sharing what you have been through with others and hearing how they have coped can be a source of strength for you.
  • Support groups. There are many types of groups. Think about what you would like in a group and talk to your health care provider to help you find that type of group.
  • Spiritual help, which can come from your church, synagogue, or other religious center. Or you may find that reading, talking with others, and meditating or praying provide you with a sense of peace and strength.
  • Health care providers both in the community and in the hospital. A whole range of specially trained people are available to help you meet all your needs.
  • Caregivers, who provide your day-to-day care. As they care for you, remind them that they need to care for their own needs as well.