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More Than Survivors

We Are Members of the Team

by Chris Frey, MSW

Inspiration image

I have had wonderful cancer care. At each stage of my journey, I have met highly skilled, efficient, and compassionate caregivers. I have also been repeatedly reminded that I am not just the recipient of that care; I am an active, vibrant member of the team, working to restore me to health.

Cancer taught me that it was possible to work cooperatively with my treatment staff while maintaining a realistic level of independence and control. For each survivor, autonomy and collaboration can join hands.

Attitude Counts
Each day when I arrived at the clinic, I was greeted with the smiles and kind words of Tracy, or one of the other amazing receptionists. Next week, when I go in for my scheduled check-up, I’m sure they will smile and tell me how good it is to see me. They care. About the patients, about the families, about their work.

As you move through your journey, you will have the opportunity to draw on the energy of people who are empathetic, skilled, optimistic, and available. The most talented caregivers will not only provide optimum physical care, they will also help to elevate your spirits, restore hope, and renew determination.

This was certainly true in my work with Leah, the clinic nutritionist. Throughout treatment, she offered encouragement and practical solutions. We monitored my calorie intake and weight loss. Each time I tired of my liquid diet, she supplied me with a new recipe or different calorie and vitamin supplements. She was a coach, a cheerleader, and a constant source of information.

As you move through your journey, you will have the opportunity to draw on the energy of people who are empathetic, skilled, optimistic, and available.

What was my role? I listened, kept her updated, borrowed from her enthusiasm, and drank a mountain of smoothies. This allowed me to maintain a safe weight and not interrupt my treatment.

Attitude counts. This does not mean we have to greet every day with a sunny disposition, or mask our true feelings about our physical or emotional pain. I certainly did not. In fact, I found that the best of my caregivers were intensely interested in honest reports of my symptoms, side effects, and shifts in mood.

The positive mindset to which I am referring is that of viewing the support system of professionals, family, friends, and other caregivers as your team. Utilize their skills, communicate as clearly and honestly as your condition allows, give respect, and expect it in return. And remember, hospital staff are people, too.

Staff are People, Too
Throughout treatment, I listened to meditation CDs for relaxation and to help me maintain a positive attitude about the procedures and medications that were necessary for my healing.

One message stuck with me and made a huge difference in my interactions with the hospital and clinic staff. I was encouraged to thank my advocates and caregivers for their work, remembering that each one of them left homes, families, and their own daily concerns to assist me in recovery.

As I grounded myself in this suggestion, I became more aware of the people who were caring for me and more attuned to the quality of our interactions. I began to use the word “my” not “the” when I discussed surgeons, oncologists, and nurses. As this shift occurred, my awareness of the quality of care I was receiving dramatically increased.

Over a period of months, I also realized that several of the people who were providing me services were themselves cancer survivors. Other staff had loved ones who were survivors. They, like me, had lived inside this disease. I was filled with gratitude that these people had dedicated their careers to this cause.

And so, sincerely and often, I thanked the staff – from the receptionists, to the billing office, to the treatment staff. It was the easiest part of my recovery; I’ve met a whole bunch of dedicated, compassionate people.

How might this approach affect our care? I truly believe that seeing the professional team in this light can increase our motivation to follow through with even the most challenging aspects of treatment. With collaboration comes the communication that helps prevent errors, promotes quick response to our concerns, bolsters our hope, and corrects problems.

Perhaps most important, we are reminded that we are more than cancer survivors. We are members of the team.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Chris Frey is a throat and neck cancer survivor, psychotherapist, and the author of Men at Work: An Action Guide to Masculine Healing. This article is an excerpt of a work in progress, I’m Sorry, It’s Cancer: A Handbook of Help and Hope for Survivors and Families.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2010.