How Can Cancer Survivors Help The Newly Diagnosed?

Cancer survivors have the responsibility of sharing their knowledge of living in the world of cancer with the newly diagnosed, writes one survivor. Here, she shares ways to offer help.

I’ve always been a sucker for medical television shows. Not only do I find them interesting, but I inevitably find myself laughing at the vast amount of misinformation included in the scripts. As incorrect as much of the content may be, there’s no doubt, it makes for good entertainment.

One of the newest shows on primetime is “New Amsterdam,” the story about a struggling hospital in New York’s Chinatown. A storyline that recently got my attention was when the show’s medical director character, Max Goodwin, is given the responsibility of overhauling the facility. As he works diligently to rid the hospital of unnecessary staff and revamp each department, he feels the need to create a more patient-focused facility and relays his concern to the staff.

Thinking of ways to accomplish his goal, Goodwin comes up with the catchy tagline, “How can I help?” As he wanders the halls of the hospital, we see Goodwin approaching one staff member after another with his open-ended question. Their responses vary from mistrust to disbelief until they realize the seriousness of their superior. As the hospital begins to adopt this new perspective, viewers begin to home in on the “How can I help?” question as it’s repeatedly used in the show.

That question caused me to wonder, “How can we, as survivors of cancer, help the newly diagnosed?” With that question in mind, I visited the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) website in search of the most asked questions by those diagnosed with cancer. As I perused the site, I discovered many of the questions posed were the same ones I’d asked, years ago, but others were not included. That’s when I realized, as a cancer survivor, it was my responsibility to help and one of the best ways I could help was to listen.

According to the ACS website, many people want answers to questions like:

  • How common is cancer?
  • Who gets cancer?
  • What causes cancer?
  • What are the risk factors for cancer?
  • How is cancer diagnosed?
  • How is cancer treated?
  • What are the side effects of treatment?

All of those questions are important, and the ACS does a great job of addressing those concerns, but what about the less common questions like those posed on social media platforms or overheard in hospital waiting rooms? Those questions are the ones I wanted answers to when I received the news of my diagnosis and I feel they are likely ones others would ask, too.

These were some of the questions I had immediately after diagnosis:

  1. What do I do now?
  2. How do I tell my family the news?
  3. Should I seek a second opinion?
  4. Will I need chemotherapy?
  5. Will I get sick from treatment?
  6. Do I need radiation therapy?
  7. How will I pay for procedures my insurance doesn’t cover?
  8. What if treatments don’t work and the cancer spreads?
  9. Do I need an advanced directive?
  10. Will I survive?

Luckily, along with those questions and many more, I found answers through family and friends who’d already gone through cancer treatment. They were open and honest, willing to help in any way possible.

A nurse navigator was also helpful. She was assigned to my case by the hospital and assisted me as I experienced each phase of treatment. Knowing what to expect helped lessen the anxiety I was feeling.

What if, as survivors of cancer, we follow Goodwin’s lead and begin asking the newly diagnosed, “How can we help?” And what if, when someone accepts the offer of assistance, we follow through by being willing and able to help them feel less overwhelmed and less alone?

By offering aid to a person in early stages of treatment or by answering questions they find too insignificant or too embarrassing to ask their medical team, we open the door to feelings of connectedness, compassion and caring. With open arms, we can embrace the newly diagnosed.

It isn’t difficult to ask the question, “How can I help?” But we shouldn’t ask if we aren’t willing to follow through.

I would have appreciated being asked that question as my journey began. It would have made things a lot easier than having to discover answers on my own through trial and error.

For the newly diagnosed — don’t be afraid to accept an offer of help. Many of us were once in your shoes. We understand how confusing and frightening being thrust into the world of cancer can be. You don’t have to go through it alone. Let us help. Together we can share the burden of an unexpected health challenge.

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