Oct 2, 2014

Interview Transcript

Interviewer: A family member, a loved one or a close friend's been diagnosed with cancer and you're wondering how you can help. We'll examine that next on The Scope.

Announcer: Medical news and research from University Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier, healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Interviewer: It can be a tricky thing if a loved one, a family member or a friend has been with cancer. What do you say? What can you do? What shouldn't you do? We're going to answer some of those questions right now with Dr. John Sweetenham at Huntsman cancer Institute. Let's talk about what somebody can do in the situation if they know somebody who's been diagnosed with cancer.

Dr. Sweetenham: You can think of it at two levels. There's the emotional support you can provide, and maybe I can't give much advice about that because that would be an individual thing, but I think there's a lot of practical support that you can provide, which can be incredible helpful. I would summarize it, really, as being a resource for helping to gather information that's going to be helpful to the person who's suffering from cancer.

Interviewer: Got you. So somebody gets that diagnosis from me, I wouldn't even know what to say. That is kind of a personal thing, but there are some general rules that could guide that.

Dr. Sweetenham: Yeah. First of all, I think there is an assumption that if someone has that diagnosis that it means that their life is threatened, that they may only have a relatively short time to live, and that they face, potentially, some very tough treatment with horrendous side effects. Now, all of those things can be true, but very frequently, and I would say now more often than not, they're actually not true, that outlooks are improving.
Cancer isn't the death sentence that it was many years ago and treatments are becoming increasingly tolerable and easier to handle, although it certainly isn't a walk in the park. So I think that one way in which the family and friends can be very helpful is just trying to help the patient understand and assimilate the fact that it's not necessarily a life sentence. There is going to be life beyond this diagnosis and that the treatment may be pretty bad, but most of the time it's usually not as bad as folks are anticipating.

Interviewer: And I think, too, from a communication standpoint, it's important to acknowledge their emotions. That they're scared or there might be some uncertainty, but still give them that information, which can be kind of a tough thing to do.

Dr. Sweetenham: Yeah. Absolutely.

Interviewer: So, then, what are some of the things you would not want to do, in this situation?

Dr. Sweetenham: There is a tendency among many family and friends, in the desire to be helpful, to direct the person that they care about along avenues that may not be the best thing. One of the things that we often see is, there's a tendency to assume that the more aggressive the approach somebody takes to their cancer, the better the outcome is going to be for them, and that may not be true. There's a tendency to maybe want a patient to seek multiple opinions on the best way to treat their cancer, and certainly we all strongly encourage second opinions, but there comes a point where that becomes a little bit self-defeating.
I think many of the support team who are around a patient with cancer will try to be helpful in terms of advice regarding nutrition, lifestyle, all those kind of things and, again, done with the best possible intentions, but often they are describing things which are a little anecdotal, which, potentially, could be harmful. So I think that in providing that kind of support, just be very wary of the fact that the risk is that you can make the person who's affected by the cancer almost feel guilty if they don't pursue some of these more aggressive or slightly alternative, for want of a better word, approaches to their cancer.

I think that, probably, the best thing that you can do is be the additional pair of ears that most people need to gather information about their cancer. When it's appropriate, to be at the appointments, to listen to what's said, so that you can then help your family member or your friend put together the pieces of what they were told during each of the visits to the clinic or to the hospital.

Interviewer: So as somebody providing information, where's a great place to get information. I would imagine the internet can be a little precarious. You don't know if you're getting good, solid information there or not.

Dr. Sweetenham: No, there are some very reliable sources of information on the internet. The National Cancer Institute, for example, has a superb information website and it has information for patients and families, as well as for health care providers. Here at Huntsman Cancer Institute we have a cancer learning center, which is an incredible resource in terms of written material, web-based material. The patients can either phone in here, they can get on our website and get access to a huge amount of information from our cancer learning center regarding different types of cancer and the different approaches that they might take.

Interviewer: So, in addition to that written material, is there generally somebody here at the learning center that would be able to talk you through some stuff, if necessary.

Dr. Sweetenham: Absolutely. You can call the cancer learning center and there will be somebody there on the phone who will be able to help you and that number is 888-424-2100.

Interviewer: So don't be Chicken Little and assume all cancer is bad and the sky is falling. Be that listening set of ears. And gather information. Did I miss anything?

Dr. Sweetenham: No. Absolutely. I think you got it.

Interviewer: Is there one last thing that you would say to somebody if that family member or friend was in the room after a cancer diagnosis, and they said "What should I do?" Beyond what we've talked about.

Dr. Sweetenham: Beyond what we've talked about. I would just re-emphasize one thing again and that is that you can be the eyes and ears of that person at a time when they're not necessarily going to be in the best state to be able to assimilate the information that they need. Information and knowledge is power in this situation, and as a family member or friend, it can be incredibly valuable for you to fulfill that role.

Announcer: We're your daily dose of science, conversation, medicine. This is The Scope. University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.

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