Mentoring Patients With Cancer When You've 'Been There' Before


When I began cancer treatments, I longed for advice from someone who had "been there."

Nurses would offer sound medical opinions, but the questions I wanted answered began: "Did you experience…?" Since I recognized the need for one-on-one support for cancer patients, I was determined to take on the role of mentor for others facing this overwhelming diagnosis. Having been through cancer enabled me to relate from a position of empathy. I knew what it was like to face tough questions and multiple unknowns. My basic goals as a mentor were to offer information, compassion and hope. The clever Swedish proverb holds true: "Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow."

If you have considered becoming a mentor to cancer patients after becoming a survivor, I encourage you to do so. Even without much training, if you have the strong desire to help others, you already have two essentials. First, you have credibility with patients since you "know what it is like." Second, since you can empathize, your sincerity will shine through.

Another word for mentor is "advocate" and the precious meaning of advocate, as derived from the Greek, is "called alongside." There are no rigid rules for mentoring since each person will approach others with their own unique style. Still, there are some general guidelines I find applicable to mentoring situations. Being positive is an essential element. By "being positive" I don't mean sugar-coating information or situations, as mentors, honesty is necessary. Still, we can offer hope whenever and wherever possible. Perhaps you can explain how easy the port-insertion procedure is or extend hope for a better day tomorrow. While striving to be uplifting, avoid being unrealistic. Clichés such as "everything will be okay" are not helpful and may not be true. We can be upbeat in our attitude without being naive about the seriousness of a cancer diagnosis.

One aspect you will want to be aware of is your pace in relaying information. Assess what the person can absorb in one setting. Go slowly and be patient when you give out information. You may have to repeat yourself a couple times before your mentee can actually comprehend ideas new to them. Most of us felt distraught by all the information and treatment decisions coming at us at once. There is no need to explain multiple elements far into the future. Another important aspect in any mentoring relationship is to foster acceptance and authentic communication. Let the patient know they have the freedom to ask any question. Ease any concerns of your mentee by telling them that no question is off-limits.

Sometimes, ladies I mentor wonder if they can share personal problems. Since cancer treatments can cause vaginal dryness as well as decrease libido, you may encounter questions about painful intercourse or a lack of desire. You will want to be prepared to answer questions about intimacy in an accepting and professional manner. A mentor reaches out and supports others with compassion. Yet, as in any relationship, there is a need to establish boundaries. You will want to be upfront about your availability. Clarify how often you expect to meet and for what length of time. Share when you will be available to talk and the best method to contact you. Also decide what your role will include and exclude. Inform the patient if you are only able to talk on the phone or if you are willing to do more, as a one-on-one meeting. Explaining your role as a mentor and clarifying your boundaries from the start will avoid misunderstandings later.

Mentoring at its core is a form of helping, thus, one of the more satisfying aspects of mentoring is being able to offer practical advice. For example, women who struggled taking a shower with two cumbersome drains asked me for advice on showering. Since my surgeon had suggested using ordinary lanyards, I passed this information on to those I mentored. Quickly attaching a safety pin to the lanyard clip enables one to shower — hands free. To be able to have a patient's concerns answered in a way that is immediately applicable is deeply rewarding.

Encourage any small step forward. For instance, perhaps a mentee exercised for ten minutes and you think they should be exercising for over a half-hour. Commend the effort and urge them to go on. Most people respond much better to compliments instead of criticism. In my case, due to the debilitating effects of chemo on my leg muscles, I was unable to walk much beyond two blocks. The positive people surrounding me encouraged me to keep trying. If they had belittled my efforts, it would have been easy to give up. I remember I was so thrilled when I finally reached the one-mile mark, walking without pain. Be kind and affirm small successes along the way!

Another key concept to remember is not to offer medical advice if you are not a medical professional. Spouting out what you deem as harmless suggestions could prove detrimental to another person's health. For medical questions, refer the patient to their physician. Of course, you may share your own experiences, but realize yours may not be similar to another's.

Demonstrate compassion in your own way. For some mentors, it means bringing a little gift basket of lotions, soft socks, and snacks. For anyone, of course, it means spending time. Time is a sincere investment since we all have a limited quantity. If you are able, you may want to do something special and practical like taking notes at medical appointments. Little gestures become so meaningful when a person is going through a tough situation.

I will never forget the seemingly "little" things my friends did during my worst days. One friend sent me a thoughtful text before every single one of my appointments. I don't know how she kept track when I hardly could, but it felt good to be thought of so consistently. Another dear friend brought me a quilt when I was nervously facing my first chemo infusion. The warmth of that affectionately crafted quilt went far beyond its physical warming. You may think you can only do something small for another, but love is not gauged with a ruler.

A person's day might be improved by a brief conversation or even just a smile. A little act can contain a large amount of kindness!

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