v4n4 - Communicating with Policy Makers

CURE, Winter 2005, Volume 4, Issue 4

Many cancer patients and survivors are compelled to share their experiences to help others, from raising awareness in the community to becoming involved in public policy. Whether it is writing letters or scheduling visits with an elected official to discuss a cancer care issue, patients and survivors are making their voices heard.

Make It Personal

It’s important to personalize communication by sharing the story of your cancer diagnosis and treatment and sending pictures, newspaper clippings or even holiday cards. When conveying your message to representatives, it may actually be preferable to talk about the nuts and bolts of the issue with a staffer and share your personal story with your representative.

“Elected officials depend on those staffers to have the in-depth knowledge to advise the legislators about what their constituents want,” says Bob Hall, director of government relations for the National Coalition of Cancer Survivorship, an organization devoted to advocating for quality cancer care on the federal level. “But people with cancer have such compelling stories that, most of the time, representatives want to hear what they have to say as well.”

At the national level, cancer survivors are conveying their message through national letter-writing campaigns, calls and visits to Capitol Hill. On the local level, it can be much more personal, including speaking with local officials, getting them involved in local chapter activities or events and scheduling meetings to talk about certain issues. Town hall meetings are also a great way to talk to both local and national officials.

“Even if it’s on an entirely different topic, that shouldn’t stop you from asking a question about cancer care,” Hall says.

Numbers Count

If you’re lobbying support for a certain bill, making phone calls and sending letters—either hand-written or through an online writing campaign—are ways to show where you stand on certain issues. Phone calls and e-mails are tallied by the legislative offices, so each one counts.

E-mail is an excellent form of communication, and one that is actually preferred by Capitol Hill. If e-mail is not an option, traditional mail is also effective, but it may take longer because for safety reasons, all letters going to Capitol Hill are irradiated, taking weeks if not months to get to legislative offices.

Do Your Homework

Doing research beforehand is essential, and it can also help in getting your message to the right person. “If you call and know the name of the person you want to talk to, you can often get past the gatekeeper,” says Hall. “With cancer care and cancer issues, that person is most likely going to be the health legislative assistant.”

Knowing the voting record of your elected official and background of the issue can also strengthen your argument and give you credibility. Christine Brunswick, a breast cancer survivor from Washington, D.C., and longtime lobbyist, warns that if you can’t explain your position, your credibility plummets.

“Make sure you’re fully informed because the most important thing you have as an advocate is your credibility,” says Brunswick. If you can’t answer a question, she suggests replying, “I don’t know but I will get you the information.” Then do it.

To do their job, elected officials need to hear from their constituents on issues that are important to them, such as quality cancer care and survivorship issues. “We pay their salaries and they want to hear from us so they can do their job better,” says Hall.