How to Talk with Cancer Patients

Article Categories: Patient Care & Diseases and Conditions

Cancer can happen to anyone. The National Cancer Institute reports that one in two males and one in three females will be diagnosed with some type of cancer. Consider these facts:

• Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., after heart disease. One in four deaths--about 1500 people a day--is from cancer.
• While it does occur in children, 78% of all cancers are in people over the age of 55.
• The rate of cancer in minorities is expected to double by the year 2030, making 28% of all cancer diagnoses, probably related to access to healthcare.
• The good news: two out of three patients will live at least five years.

Most settings where Medical Assistants work will provide care for cancer patients. Besides oncology visits, these patients seek treatment for other conditions. They still have allergies, diabetes, broken bones, and heart issues. They still need to check in with their Primary Care Physician. And they still want to be talked to.

Many healthcare professionals feel awkward around a person with cancer. They don’t know what to say, so they avoid the topic, which can make everyone uncomfortable. Patients and their families like to follow the lead of their providers; they want to feel safe to talk about what’s going on with their disease and their lives.

Here are some suggested ways to be at ease with cancer patients:

1. Each patient is unique. Some may want to talk openly and seek information. Some may hold back until they feel comfortable. It’s okay to ask how a patient is feeling, if there is anything new going on, or if the patient has any questions.

2. Ask the patient to tell you about his cancer in his own words. You’ll learn a lot, including how much he knows and how accurate his understanding is.

3. Take time to study each cancer. Your knowledge base will grow, and you will also have a better understanding of the patient’s disease process and symptoms.

4. After a while, patients become experts on their cancer. They can be your teachers.

5. Support the patient’s vision of hope. When she tells you what she’s hoping for, see it as a sign of trust. You don’t have to say anything false or unrealistic. “I share your hope” is a simple, true statement.

6. Don’t be surprised by feelings and emotions. Patients feel safe with you. Let them be sad; sit with them for a moment. Don’t try to cheer them up or tell them things will be fine. Allow them to openly express themselves.

7. Ask the patient and family if they have any plans. Encourage them to enjoy activities and to continue with normal routines.

8. Know some local resources and support groups. There are meetings for patients, specific diagnoses, and family members. Clinics and hospitals offer classes in nutrition, relaxation, and art therapy. Patients may resist at first, or may seek some help at any point. Be ready to give them some ideas.

Working with cancer patients can be one of the best parts of your career. They teach us all many lessons in caring, compassion, hope, and faith. Mainly they teach us to live each day to the fullest and to be grateful for everything we have.

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