By Lisa Decker, registered nurse, as told to Alyson Powell Key
Fifteen years ago, there wasn’t much support for family members of people with cancer. I think education has come a long way over the past 10 years. Today, everyone knows somebody close to them who’s had cancer. So it’s been a process of education over time.
Cancer nurse navigators meet patients at the time of diagnosis and follow them throughout their care. We have a really close bond, not only with them, but also with the family. And it becomes more of a trust and education process where the family member picks up the phone and says, “This is what’s going on today, and I’m scared. Is this normal?” So, we’re teaching disease process to people and family members, and that’s made a big difference.
Supporting Someone With Cancer
One of the biggest ways to support someone with lung cancer is to say something like, “Tell me what I can do to make your life easier. Can I bring you a meal once a week? Can I cut the grass for you once a month?” Offer a service, not just “Call me if you need something,” because most of the time, they won’t ask when they need extra support.
I also tell family and friends, “When your mother has cancer, she’s still your mother. So, every time you see her, don’t talk about cancer or treatment or what she’s going through. Instead, say, “I’d love to come over on Sunday afternoon and take a walk.” Talk about the weather, the flowers that are blooming. But don’t always make it about the disease. They’re still the person they’ve always been -- a wonderful teacher or mother, not their cancer. Let them shine as the great person they really are.
We have a great cancer support group network. If someone has non-small-cell lung cancer, there’s a group and a social worker who works with them. They can talk about their problems, their concerns, what’s going on in their life, and the things they have to face. And that way, they feel like they have a partner, somebody who’s going through the same things, and can have support. At the same time, we have a caregiver group because it’s not always comfortable to say some things in front of their loved one. So, in their group, they can talk about what’s going on in their lives too.
Encouraging Self-Care and a New Normal
As a nurse navigator, I get close with families and patients. I have a self-care list for them and will say, “Let’s choose 3 things from this list. Have a picnic. Buy yourself flowers.” We have small milestones where they’re not totally focused on symptoms.
When someone with cancer is very active in the community and starts going through a chemotherapy regimen -- losing their hair, being nauseated all the time -- we educate them on how to still be out and about but not directly exposed to a lot of people. Instead of going to the ballfield and sitting in the stadium with 50 people, go to the park with a friend, sit on a bench, and people-watch.
Sometimes we have to figure out a “new normal." Today may be their new normal. Let’s get out today and feel the sunshine on our faces, try to focus on something different, and find that new normal of who they are.