What can I do to most help cancer patients and those who love and care for them?
October 23, 2009 10:05 AM   Subscribe

I've just started volunteering at a local hospital on the cancer ward. We've had some training and I do have some personal experience (family member) with cancer treatment, but I want to be as helpful as I can -- If you have spent time on a cancer ward, as a patient, family member or friend -- or as hospital staff, how can I, as a friendly stranger, be most helpful to someone like you?

I realize people have a huge range of experience with cancer so I know I am not considering everything -- anything that you consider might make me more helpful to those on the floor would be appreciated. I am there for only 4 hrs/week, so I want to make the most of the time. What sticks out in your mind, positive or negative, big or small, from your experience?
posted by nnk to Human Relations (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: . . . or if you've volunteered! How could I forget other volunteers. If you've volunteered, I'd love to hear about your experience too.
posted by nnk at 10:06 AM on October 23, 2009

As a family member to a person with terminal cancer (years ago), I appreciated so much the presence of those staffers (nurses and others) who were calm and responsive/ helpful/ present/ real. The ones who were overly cheery, almost baby-talk-y, were less helpful for me.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:18 AM on October 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

(family member)

People who acted normal and not like someone there was going to die, even if the situation is serious. I mean, being comfortable in your own skin and not awkward or tense.
posted by kathrineg at 11:07 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

And yeah, everyone is an adult, treat everyone like an adult. Sick adult /= child.
posted by kathrineg at 11:08 AM on October 23, 2009

That said 99% of people were helpful so don't stress out too much about being perfect.
posted by kathrineg at 11:09 AM on October 23, 2009

This may sound really silly, but it is incredibly important. Please be sure that your breath is fresh and you don't use a strong deodorant or cologne when around people who are doing chemo. People undergoing chemo can have exceptionally bad reactions to strong smells.

Furthermore, I think it is great that you are doing this. Good luck!
posted by msali at 11:18 AM on October 23, 2009

My dad got prostate cancer when I was 10, and had a completely debilitating stroke when I was 11. The hardest part about it was knowing that my dad was still alive, but "gone". I hung on the words of the nurses who said anything about contact with him beyond the norm... even hearing he'd patted one of their butts was relieving to hear, though a bit embarrassing.

Beyond that, the most valuable thing the people around him did was when they leveled with my mom and said he'd had more strokes, and just wasn't there anymore. My mom was heartbroken so I made the call to terminate life support (at 12!), and after a few days that was that. I'm still terrified I did that in a moment of weakness, but it still seems like the right decision.

Without the anecdotes and honesty we would have been in a much worse place then we were. I realize strokes aren't a very common cancer complication but I suspect those traits are needed just as much anyway. People will go from not wanting anyone to know anything to suddenly needing to hear anything at all, so flexibility and the resiliency of an elephant are good too. Learning how to help smooth over the bumps (red tape, nausea, etc.) would be extremely welcome advice at anytime too. And thank you for doing this.
posted by jwells at 11:32 AM on October 23, 2009

The hospital my family member was in was so busy that you pretty much had to have a friend or family member there to do any little things for you, even just getting a glass of water. If your hospital seems like this, maybe identify patients who do not have people there to help them and check on them first.

Good for you for doing that! It will be appreciated, no question.
posted by BibiRose at 12:45 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I spent quite a bit of time in the adult bone marrow transplant wing of UMinn last year with my father. The nursing care was excellent and my father himself was in isolation, so a volunteer wouldn't have been able to help him directly much.

My family was definitely from out-of-town. We didn't have a car with us. We were staying in one of the smallish apartments reserved for transplant families next to the hospital. Keeping a chemotherapy patient fed can be difficult under the best of circumstances, so being able to find his favorite foods (or even just tolerable foods) was tricky. One of the most useful things a local friend helped us out with was simply taking me out to shop for groceries. A quick jaunt over to the local supermarket really helped us out on several occasions.

(Thanks again, Lisa!)
posted by pointless_incessant_barking at 2:04 PM on October 23, 2009

Several years ago, I was a patient in one of those wards a few times because I kept getting sick during chemo (no white blood cells). I was pretty much alone in my room, and if someone had come by just to chat and maybe offered to get me a candy bar, I would have been grateful.

Be warned, though - it's a little awkward: I had no hair although I did wear a hat, and I had all sorts of IVs attached to me through that indecent hospital top. Anyone who visited had to wear a mask (it was an isolation room).

One of my vows after that awful year was to never, ever go back to that place - it's the stuff bad dreams are made of. So I admire what you are about to do.

Best of luck
posted by natalie b at 3:26 PM on October 23, 2009

A friend of mine just finished a round of chemo, a young healthy kid, lymphoma hit him out of nowhere, 26 years old. Four rounds of chemo, each worse than the last, he's weak and he's sick and puking and his hair's gone and he's skinny and frail and maybe dying and he's scared shitless of course though hiding it to everyone best he can, including and maybe especially himself.

Top it all off, no-one knew what to say to him, all of his friends were treating him with kid gloves, everyone was nervous and fidgety and awkward. And then he got to feeling like no one *could* ever understand anyways, as he walked where no one else walked, blah blah blah.

He was really grateful that I still busted his chops same as always, in fact told him "Pah, so you've got you some cancer, big deal, I've been dead a bunch of times -- top that, ya slut." and he loved it -- no kid gloves here.

The point: Cancer or not, they're still people, and don't want to be treated differently. It's maybe going to take you a bit of time but I hope you'll learn to just relax and be yourself, it'll help *them* relax and be themselves -- Mike hadn't laughed in the longest til we started hanging out and just being dopes and making fun of each other, same as any guys at any other time. I used to be one of those up-tight don't-know-what-to-say folks myself but over the years and then especially since those heart attacks and whatnot I know this whole show is about warmth and connection. And if you can learn this, you'll be great in so many other situations, too; a calming influence.

Great thing you're doing.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:46 PM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh boy does ClaudiaCenter have it. This is just really so deeply true.

My mom died really slowly from cancer. The last four years of her life were in and out of hospitals -- each stay a little longer, each interval a little shorter, slightly more bad days, each good day a little bit less good, for four years, and then she died. The thing is, she was the hard-charging take-no-shit career woman inside she always was, no matter how crummy she felt -- she wanted to live, she was still her.

So the nurses would come in, and chirp something cheery at her. She'd give them a look that would have made her assistant rethink his approach -- but all they could see is this bald, emaciated woman lying half-dead and pitiful on a bed -- and chirp on. They didn't see her. She looked pretty bad, and she was certainly suffering, but her mind was still hers and she wanted people to talk to her like they would anybody -- not a child, not a pitiable object, just a person. She'd get so frustrated that she'd actually pull the tubes out of her arms and try to leave (once, on her hands and knees). We realized -- after the second time -- that one of us had to be with her at all times in the hospital, primarily just to look past the death's mask and take her seriously.

I trust that most people, most patients, don't lose their shit like my poor mom. I'm not faulting her nurses in any way. Just saying that, if you can meet your patients and look at them and talk to them as you would anybody -- while making a few more allowances for pain or distress -- you will really be helping, way more than with the water or magazine or whatever. Dignity and sense of self are really hard to lose, harder to lose than say, bowel function or the use of your legs.

Also a pack of crayons for visiting kids. Hospitals do not have these. Kids do a lot of waiting around, not knowing what's going on, and get restive. You could help them make a picture for Grandma's room, so they're busy and feel like they're helping.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:49 PM on October 23, 2009

Simple ask them if there is anything they need and if they'd like to chat. Be a good listener.

Interestingly, I just had a similar experience yesterday. I found out that a coworker suddenly discovered she has Stage 4 lung cancer. She's in shock because she feels absolutely fine and she's young (50). I had heard from another coworker she was sick but when the elevator opened there she was coming to work. So we had a chance to talk (in the hall of all places). And I kept remembering "just talk normally --yes about the cancer but be sincere, honest, and listen."

It was intense for both of us. And, quite honestly, I had to constantly remind myself to do just what I suggested in the paragraph above. I woke up at 4 this morning thinking about it. I was very affected by the experience but also realized not as affected by what she is going through.

Thank you for doing this.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 5:56 AM on October 24, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everybody -- it helps to hear all of your perspectives -- I appreciate you sharing them.
posted by nnk at 7:48 PM on October 27, 2009

« Older Why are my PDFs becoming heavyweights?   |   how to print XKCD with image title? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.