Supporting Patients with Cancer and Their Families


Fourteen years ago, a few years past midlife, I stepped out of what I had expected to be a lifelong career and pursued a Master's degree in counseling. I was preparing myself to serve a broad and diverse group of individuals for the remainder of my career. I had not anticipated that the first position I landed with the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program as a Medical Family Therapist would also so deeply serve me.

The Duke Cancer Patient Support Program has afforded me the ability to serve heart to heart with patients and their families during one of their most challenging life experiences - a cancer diagnosis. Together, I have searched with families to find ways to cope and adjust, change perspectives, and enhance resilience. I've served and supported patients and families as they connect their own dots to find their pathway through cancer. Throughout these relationships I have learned from them the importance of Affirmation, Assistance, and Appreciation.

Patients and their family members are seeking to hear Affirmation that the way they feel, often overwhelmed and distraught, about the cancer is acceptable. One family expressed their feelings saying "the applecart of everything we held dear was not only turned upside down, it was smashed against the wall with the apples being strewn everywhere". Another man experiencing his third family members' diagnosis told me "don't tell me how I should feel". To avoid being an offensive intruder or fixer, I listen with empathetic curiosity and join to serve only when invited to Affirm.

As their story unfolds, most of families want Assistance in finding their way forward, accommodating this new reality with cancer. They want support towards reasserting control when challenged with an uncertain future. Heart to heart expressions such as "I'm stuck. My old life is gone and I don't know who I am anymore" provide content for our collaborative work. I have Assisted patients and families in discovering pathways that lead them to find acceptance in the integration of their old and new identity.

Many patients and families eventually find themselves in a place where they Appreciate life and its journey. I observe patients and their family's language become ready with warmth and gratitude even during the challenge of cancer. "I no longer hate what has happened to us and I've stopped asking why. Every moment and everyone has become more precious than ever," says the 66-year-old, who, along with his wife, had just started their long-awaited retirement only to each be diagnosed with incurable cancers.

My work with patients and their family members in the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program has created in me a new and invaluable way of serving by Affirmation, Assistance, and Appreciation across my roles in life. I strive in all of my roles including my career, my relationship with myself, family, and friends, and in the larger world by affirming what is, assisting when I can, and above all appreciating what is, whatever it is.

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