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Supporting A Relative or Friend Who is Undergoing Treatment for Cancer

Often it's difficult to know what to say to someone who has received a cancer diagnosis, and it's also hard to know how to best support them.  Dr. Woodworth will offer advice on what you can do or say to best support a friend or relative who is undergoing treatment for cancer.
Supporting A Relative or Friend Who is Undergoing Treatment for Cancer
Featured Speaker:
Amanda Woodworth, MD, FACE, CPE
Dr. Woodworth is Medical Director of Breast Health for the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital and Keck Medicine of USC cancer program.  She is a fellowship-trained breast surgical oncologist who provides comprehensive care to patients, with a focus on oncoplastics.

Melanie Cole (Host): Often it's difficult to know what to say to someone who's received a cancer diagnosis, and it's also hard to know how best to support them.

Welcome to It's Your Health Radio with Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital. I'm Melanie Cole and here to offer advice and what you can do or say to best support a friend or a loved one who's undergoing treatment for cancer is my guest, Dr. Amanda Woodworth. She's the Medical Director of Breast Health for the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital and Keck Medicine of USC Cancer Program.

Dr. Woodworth, thank you so much for joining us. I think this topic is one of those that we've all experienced at some point, right? I think all of us have somebody in our lives, somebody that we love. So I'd like you to get right into this and tell us what you feel are some of the most important support and care measures from loved ones that we can do that can really help them to improve their outcomes.

Amanda Woodworth, MD, FACE, CPE (Guest): Absolutely. Thank you very much, Melanie. As you alluded to, everybody, at some point will encounter somebody, either a loved one or a family member who's been diagnosed with cancer. For example, breast cancer occurs in one in eight women. So everybody knows somebody who is affected somewhere along the line.

And the most important thing when somebody is first diagnosed is just for you to stop and breathe even, because that person's going through so much and you are going to become such an essential part of their care moving forward. So it's important for you to stop for a moment and breathe and think about that person who, that you love and want to support and make sure that you are ready and available to be there for that person. One of the most important things is to remain in touch with the person throughout the time that they first have an abnormal finding, to being diagnosed, to during treatment and afterwards, so that they know how much you love and care for them.

Host: That's a great point. And I know we've learned so much over the years and we've heard this positive attitude and some people roll their eyeballs at that, but really we've learned that support in case from loved ones can really help improve those outcomes for patients, haven't we?

Dr. Woodworth: Absolutely. There's been studies that show that individuals who are married or have a strong support system may actually have a survival advantage to those that do not have a good support system, whether it be a spouse, loved ones, friends, or family.

Host: Yeah, that's true. I've read a few of those myself. So why don't you okay, so we're breathing, we're staying in touch, which is such a good point and so important because sometimes it's easy to forget the phone call or the text and a few days go by and all of that kind of thing. So I'd like you to speak about now, the things that we can do right off the bat, do we ask them what do you need? Or do we say to them, because you also hear people say, let me know if you need anything. But then again, the person says, oh, I, you know, I don't need anything or whatever. Tell us what we do say.

Dr. Woodworth: So that's a fantastic point. I will tell you majority of the patients I treat are women. As women, we're used to taking care of everybody else. So the moment that there is something to do with you, your first instinct is I've got to take care of this, and I don't want to be a burden to anybody else. So it's fairly common that when somebody is diagnosed with cancer, their very first instinct is to say, oh, thank you, if, if they're asked us what, you know, what can you do.

Instead think about what can you actually offer somebody, whether it is rides to different appointments or accompanying them to different appointments, or maybe it's helping to mow the lawn. Is If is. If it is somebody that has children, one of the first thoughts that goes through somebody's head is my children. What am I going to do for my children? So maybe offering to give them rides to school. It's a great thing to actually be able to tell them what you can do instead of just asking. So offering very specific examples of how you can help and then asking, what else can I help you with, can be very helpful to the person that's undergoing treatment or has a new diagnosis.

Host: What don't we say, Dr. are some of the unhelpful things? Cause I know sometimes people say, oh, you know, there's new treatments nowadays. Or I don't know. People say things that you say that doesn't help at all. Or I had friend who had that same cancer once, those kinds of things.

Dr. Woodworth: Oh, exactly. The most important thing I want to reiterate, first of all, is to say something, that's the most important thing. I will go through different things to not say, but make sure you say something. Sometimes we get so worked up about saying the wrong thing, we don't say anything at all. And then it looks like you're running away from your loved one who really just needs to hear that you're there for them.

So some examples of what not to say is you mentioned saying I had a friend that had this type of cancer. It's very common, when somebody is diagnosed with a cancer, you want to try to help them. And, you know, with breast cancer, just because somebody has breast cancer, there's several different kinds of breast cancer. So what your friend may have had, may not have been the same exact type of cancer. So it's always helpful to listen to the patient and understand how they want you to be involved. And many times telling them that your friend saw a physician you know, in Timbuktu and they were the best physician in the world for this sort of thing is not the most helpful example.

But instead to ask them if they have any concerns and understand what the patient's exact concerns are. I have heard several variations of this, including somebody saying that so-and-so was such a terrible doctor and I wouldn't take my dog to them. That was one person who had a not great experience with that individual. And that's not helpful to somebody who's undergoing cancer treatments and maybe saw that doctor. So be mindful that when you're speaking to a patient that they're listening to every word you say and looking for advice anywhere they can get it. So just try to be mindful of those sort of words.

Host: I think one of the things you definitely don't say as my uncle Facebook MD told you try- you know, of course there's going to be those people now, sometimes talking, I do it for a living. You're very good at it. We can talk, we can offer those words of care and support, but sometimes it's what we do that matters. Things like laughing together because a person with cancer, doesn't always feel like laughing. Give us some things that you think that we can do together. That whether it's asking for advice or asking for permission before we come over or asking questions, like you said, childcare so important. Give us some more things that we can do.

Dr. Woodworth: So many aspects of somebody's life really get turned upside down when they are first diagnosed with cancer. So, especially somebody that is the primary caregiver in a family, they're very much concerned about how are they going to take care of their family. So some of those things, another person can help to step in whether it's going grocery shopping for them or offering to walk the dog when they're, you know, recovering from the latest round of chemotherapy or making a meal and bringing it over.

Those are all things that can be very helpful. The other thing that is right when somebody is first diagnosed, I tell all of my patients when I'm talking to them about their new diagnosis and different treatment options to bring another set of ears and that other set of ears is so important because having somebody there maybe taking notes so that the person that is newly diagnosed can just concentrate on listening that is such an important thing that somebody can help somebody with is just being there and listening. So when the individual has some time to think about what was said, there was somebody else that was there that heard the same thing. Hopefully took some good notes that they can reference back to. So being there for appointments, I think is probably one of the most important things that somebody can do.

The, another thing that a lot of people don't think of is chemotherapy treatments. They're very long, often people are sitting there for hours and hours while they're getting chemotherapy infused and you know, sometimes it helps just to have somebody else there with you that you can watch TV together or movie together, or just make sure that they have something there with them that they can do during those treatments.

COVID has been very difficult on patients during this time because others haven't been allowed to go with them to these appointments. So it's very helpful if you make sure that the, the individual has a full supply of activities that they can do during their, their treatments.

Host: You make such great points. And I've always been that person that goes to appointments with all of my loved ones and takes the notes and asks the doctor all the questions, but having that health advocate is so important. I have a few more questions for you because this is such a great topic. What about the caregiver, Dr. Woodworth? What can we do to support the spouse or the partner, or even the child taking care of the parent or vice versa, but the caregiver, because that is a tough job.

Dr. Woodworth: That is an extremely tough job. And in fact, it often gets overlooked about how much stress that the caregiver is going through during these times. The caregiver often has their own feelings about what is going on, and they're concerned about what's happening to their loved one. This amount of stress can not be overlooked at all because if the caregiver ends up going through caregiver fatigue, they can't be there for their loved one as much as they need to. So they need to be able to have an outlet for themselves as well. It is a fantastic idea for these individuals to consider therapy for themselves, to be able to have a place, to be able to express their feelings about everything that is going on, but also they need a break from cancer too.

And while the loved one is undergoing all their treatments of for cancer, oftentimes the caregiver, just like the patient themselves, don't feel like they get any break from cancer and their whole life is revolving around cancer. So it's just as important for the caregiver as well as for the patient to really have a break from cancer, whether it's doing something that they had enjoyed before their diagnosis or finding a new hobby or something that separates them from the diagnosis themselves.

Host: What an informative podcast this is. You have much knowledge to impart to us about something that I think we all are going to know somebody at some point in our lives that we love. There's also something called supportive cancer care. And as we wrap up Dr. Woodworth, I'd love it if you would tell us a little bit about the services at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital and Keck Medicine of USC, the Cancer Program, and tell us how family members can be a part of that and how you help them to learn how best to help their loved one.

Dr. Woodworth: So Keck Medicine of USC at Henry Mayo Hospital is a new joint venture where it is our goal with USC to bring the top notch cancer care to the Santa Clarita Valley. And we work with navigators to bring patients and their families in together to talk about their new diagnosis of cancer and really the treatment from the time of diagnosis to the treatment itself and the overall aftercare, addressing those from the very beginning and then also reaching out to the community. There are fantastic community resources that we work closely with, including the Circle of Hope, to make sure that the patients can find some respite from their cancer, but also for the caregivers themselves, like we discussed. It's essential that the entire family or family and friends be part of the patient's entire journey and treatment course.

Host: So important. Thank you so much, Dr. Woodworth for sharing your expertise with us today, and to learn more about the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital and Keck Medicine of USC Cancer Program, please visit Henry That wraps up this episode of It's Your Health Radio with Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital.

Please listeners share this show with your friends and family on your social channels. We're learning from the experts at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital and Keck Medicine of USC together. And this is information that if you share with your friends and family, we can all help to support each other. I'm Melanie Cole.