A New “New Normal”: COVID-19 Vaccine Guidelines and Cancer Patients 

As we enter the 1-year mark of living in a pandemic, there have been a lot of changes in a world that has seemed stagnant, void of time. The inadequacies in healthcare that have been hiding behind the transparent curtain are now front and center, including health disparities, as well as access to and quality of care. We have also witnessed an influx of information about COVID-19 and the vaccine, and as cancer patients, it makes everything that much more complicated. 

Luckily, there are trusted resources we can turn to for guidance on our most pressing questions: 

What are the current vaccines? What age groups are eligible to receive them? 

  • Moderna: Ages ≥ 18 years 
  • Pfizer-BioNTech: Ages ≥ 16 years
  • Janssen (Johnson & Johnson): Ages ≥ 18 years 

How many doses of each vaccine are given and how far apart? 

  • Moderna: 2 shots, 28 days apart 
  • Pfizer-BioNTech: 2 shots, 21 days apart 
  • Janssen (Johnson & Johnson): 1 shot  

If I am currently undergoing treatment, can I get the vaccine? 

Yes, as long as components of that vaccine are not contraindicated. Contraindications include: 

  • Severe allergic reaction after a previous dose of an mRNA or viral vector COVID-19 vaccine or any of its components 
  • Immediate allergic reaction of any severity to a previous dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine (both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech) or any of its components 
  • Immediate allergic reaction of any severity to polysorbate
  • Immediate allergic reaction of any severity to any ingredient in the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine such as polysorbate

If I am not currently undergoing treatment and still have cancer, can I get the vaccine? 

Yes, as long as components of that vaccine are not contraindicated. See contraindications above. 

If I no longer have cancer, should I get the vaccine? 

Yes, as long as components of that vaccine are not contraindicated. See contraindications above. 

Does it depend on when I get the vaccine based on what type of cancer I have/had? 

Yes, for guidelines on specific cancers, visit this link. 

Should my caregiver and/or people whom I live with also receive the vaccine? 

Yes, when the option becomes available to them. 

If I have previously had COVID-19 (tested positive), can I get the vaccine? 

Vaccination should be offered to persons regardless of history of prior symptomatic or asymptomatic COVID-19 infection. 

Am I fully protected after receiving the vaccine? 

At this time, researchers are unsure of how much protection the vaccine provides. Therefore, it is still recommended to wear a mask, wash yours hands for at least 20 seconds, and practice social distancing. 

However, vaccinated patients who are exposed to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 aren’t required to quarantine if they: 

  • Are fully vaccinated (i.e., ≥ 2 weeks after receiving the second dose in a 2-dose series, or ≥ 2 weeks after receiving one dose of a single-dose vaccine) AND 
  • Are within 3 months after receiving the last dose in the series AND 
  • Have remained asymptomatic (without symptoms) since the current COVID-19 exposure 

What are common side effects of the vaccine and how long do they last? 

Side effects can include: 

  • Pain and swelling on the arm where you received the shot 
  • Fever, chills, fatigue, and headaches 
  • Most post-vaccination symptoms are mild to moderate in severity, occur within the first three days of vaccination, and resolve within 1–3 days 

Of course this list is non-exhaustive, and there are a lot more questions to be asked and more answers to be found as frontline workers continue to study the virus and its variants. For the latest updates, follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, as well as American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). We’re in this together, one day at a time. 


Sources:  

  1. https://www.ama-assn.org/system/files/2020-12/covid-19-vaccine-patient-faqs.pdf 
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/info-by-product/clinical-considerations.html
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/expect/after.html
  4. https://www.onclive.com/view/nccn-releases-covid-19-vaccination-guidance-for-patients-with-cancer 

Cancer-Specific Resources:

  1. Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Safe for Myeloma Patients?
  2. What AML Patients Should Know About the COVID-19 Vaccines
  3. COVID-19 Vaccination: What Do Myelofibrosis Patients Need to Know?
  4. COVID-19 Vaccination: What Do Breast Cancer Patients Need to Know?

Empowered Patients Empower Patients: How to Take Charge of Your Diagnosis

What comes to your mind when you think of the word “empowerment?” Do you think of a specific person, thing, or event? What about an “empowered” patient? Do you think of a patient or patient advocate who goes above and beyond and fights for their health care, or embodies themselves with a wealth of knowledge about a specific disease? At the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN), we believe that patients have power. They have the power to learn about and understand their diagnosis, find a healthcare team that understands their needs, values, and morals, and support other patients on their cancer journey – all to create better health outcomes. Are you looking to become an empowered patient? Here a few ways:

  • One of the most important things about your journey is that it is your own. No cancer diagnosis is alike, just like no patient is alike. Your story is unique, and the power of sharing your story is unmatched. Storytelling is what connects others and develops strong bonds. Share your story with your family and friends, post about it on social media, and connect with patient advocacy organizations (including PEN!) to share your story across the globe. 
  • Create your own advocacy blog: This article has how-tos and best tips. 
  • Participate in Tweet chats: Tweet chats are chats that occur on Twitter at different times/days using a hashtag. PEN has a tweet chat called #patientchat that occurs every other Friday. These chats are hosted by a variety of organizations around different topics. As a participant, you answer a series of questions prompted by the host. It can be a great environment to express your opinions and talk about your experience. You can find Tweet chats relevant to you by using Symplur’s Healthcare Hashtag Project, which lists hashtags specific to what you’re looking for. You can also see if specific organizations you’re following on Twitter host chats or start your own! 
  • Join a support group in-person or online. There are a number of different organizations that offer support groups (here are some of my favorites!) where you can share your story and hear other’s, ask questions, and relax knowing you’re in a judgement-free environment. 
  • Utilize PEN’s Digitally Empowered Program: This program consists of 10 modules with videos and resource guides to navigate all that technology has to offer including navigating healthcare resources, forming a support network, using social media, navigating your health with different devices and apps, and using telemedicine. 
  • Keep updated on the latest research about your diagnosis, and share what you find relevant to you with your healthcare team and/or on social media. This article explains how to read scientific papers. 
  • Utilize PEN’s online resources tailored to the cancer community, as well as specific cancers, that focus on what to do when you’re newly diagnosed, testing and treatment options, clinical trials, and accessing and affording healthcare. 

“Wait, There’s a Good Cancer?”

When the Luck of the Draw Leads to the Short End of the Stick

Cancer is one of the most feared diseases. Everyone is affected by it in some way, but no one really imagines getting it themselves. So imagine hearing that you got the “good” cancer, a commonly used term for thyroid cancer. That can’t be right. Cancer is cancer…isn’t it? But who are we, as patients, to question what our doctors tell us? They’re the ones who went to medical school and have years of training. But maybe thyroid cancer isn’t that bad?

That’s what I thought when I was told that my cancer was the “good” one by more than one doctor. In fact, one doctor told me that thyroid cancer was “the cancer to have if you had to get it.” I didn’t have any symptoms at the time, so I took these words, spoken to me by medical professionals, as truth. Unfortunately, I learned that there was no such thing as a “good” cancer once I began treatment.

While thyroid cancer is slow-growing, does have a very good prognosis, and can be easily treatable, no cancer is the same. For example, I had the papillary variant of thyroid cancer, a common diagnosis amongst most thyroid cancer patients. I underwent surgery to remove half of the thyroid with the tumor, but my treatment didn’t end there. It was discovered in the pathology report that I had metastasis that was not shown on the original ultrasound that showed the tumor in my thyroid. As a result, I had to undergo a second surgery for the removal of the remaining half of my thyroid. Additionally, I was told by my surgeon that, because of the metastasis, he didn’t know if cancer could be elsewhere in my body, and I would need to undergo oral radiation therapy. “Wasn’t this the ‘good’ cancer?” I thought over and over.

Furthermore, what doctors don’t explain, at least very well in my case, is what not having a thyroid is going to be like. I wasn’t aware of what a thyroid was nor its functions when I was told that it was harboring a tumor. Nor did I know until I had to be placed on a supplement, or rather a replacement, for my lack of thyroid. I learned quickly that the thyroid essentially interacts with every other system in the body through controlling metabolism, heart rate, temperature, energy level, etc. My body slowly adjusted to this new medication with a prescribed dose that was initially “simply a guess” based on my age, weight, and overall health. From there, my healthcare team and I adjust the dose based on how my body responds. If I think about this, especially as a woman, my body goes through many changes as I age, and I’m sure many of them are affected by a properly-functioning thyroid, which I no longer have. I’m not saying that I’m not eternally grateful for their actually being a supplement I can take to, quite literally, live, on a daily basis. What I am saying is that the stigma and the choice of words and phrases surrounding this cancer, perpetuated by medical professionals needs to stop. At the very least, they need to recognize thyroid cancer as a cancer, a diagnosis that inevitably impacts the life, good or bad, of every patient who has this terrible disease well into survivorship.

If you’re a thyroid cancer patient, whether newly-diagnosed, in treatment, no evidence of disease (NED), or anywhere in between, educate and advocate for yourselves. Find doctors who take the time to understand your wants and needs as an individual human being. Never think that your cancer is “less than,” because it matters.

The Caregiver Impact: A Vital Part of Healthcare

Carly FlumerCarly Flumer is a young woman who was diagnosed with stage I papillary thyroid cancer at the age of 27. She recently received her Master’s degree from Boston University in Health Communication and received her Bachelor’s from George Mason University in Health Administration and Policy. While being diagnosed with the “C” word at such […]

Empowering Ourselves Forward: Applying Skills to Our Cancer Journey

During the pandemic, all of us have had to do some adjusting, some more than others. As cancer patients, we recognize the “new normal” everyone else is experiencing. While this can be detrimental, it can also be seen as somewhat gratifying. The non-cancer world finally understands what we’ve gone through and/or are going through on a daily basis and for the rest of our lives. Yet we’ve all learned new skills and coping mechanisms to make the best of our situation:

Virtual Appointments (Telehealth)

By now, the majority of patients have experienced at least one telehealth appointment where we see a doctor, NP, PA, etc. virtually. Whether this a completely new experience or not, there are many ways in which we can benefit from these appointments, which, hopefully, continue into the future.

What can be applied in the future:

  • Writing down a list of questions before your appointment so that nothing is missed
  • The feeling of comfort with your health care professional, especially if they weren’t in a white coat. They’re humans just like us
  • Asking questions when you don’t understand something – there is time!
  • The importance of having a caregiver as a second set of eyes and ears

Being Active

Gyms were closed (and some still are) for a long period of time, which forced us to be creative in being active.

What can be applied in the future:

  • If you watched YouTube videos or downloaded fitness apps, continue to use them to apply those movements to your routine
  • If you tried free classes offered by a local studio or gym, see what these places offer in-person
  • For motivation, grab a family member of friend to keep you accountable

Mindfulness

Perhaps the hardest part of going through the pandemic is the mental aspect, especially for cancer patients who are considered more vulnerable.

What can be applied in the future:

  • Continue using apps and YouTube videos to guide you through meditations
  • Keep a journal to write down your feelings
  • Set intentions at the start of each day
  • Remember how far you’ve come and what you can be grateful for

Family and Friends

Social distancing and wearing masks were suggestions (and in some states mandatory) to help stop the spread of the virus. This led to family and friends not being able to see one another, often for months. What’s more is the masks often concealed our expressions, making communication a little bit harder.

What can be applied in the future:

  • Spend more time with people who care about you, knowing it is possible for it to be taken away from you
  • Practice being in the moment, really focusing on what the person is saying and watching their facial expressions
  • Remember your own needs: people may now want to get together more often, but that may not be possible due to a number of factors, including your place in treatment, symptoms, and mental/physical/emotional states. Take the time you need for yourself

The Power of the PEN Network Manager Program

I never dreamed of being a patient advocate, but then again, I never dreamed of receiving a cancer diagnosis, either. When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in January 2017, I didn’t have any symptoms. I was told I had the “good” cancer or “the cancer to get if you had to be diagnosed with one” by my doctors. I took this information to heart, and accepted that cancer was now a part of my life, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

It wasn’t until I ended my treatment, when I declared myself a survivor, that I realized I was completely wrong. I recognized there were choices I could have made regarding my treatment plan and there were still opportunities to take charge in how I was treated as a patient. Enter patient advocacy in the cancer world.

Everyone has a story, no patient or cancer is the same. We each have our own unique experience of how we move through the healthcare system beginning the day we’re diagnosed with the “C” word. I knew my story was unique because I was an AYA patient, or an adolescent and young adult, I was working full-time, and I was in graduate school. I dreamt of being published on places other than social media. I wanted an outlet where I was free to share my side of the story without having to hold back. A place where I could share not only the ups and downs of my journey, but my own insights of what it was like to be a young cancer patient. A place where I could advocate for other thyroid cancer patients – let them know what to expect, the questions they should ask of their care team, and how to best take care of themselves. Enter the Patient Empowerment Network.

Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) is an advocacy organization for cancer patients whose “mission is to fortify cancer patients and care partners with the knowledge and tools to boost their confidence, put them in control of their healthcare journey, and assist them with receiving the best, most personalized care available.” I discovered them through one of their tweet chats on Twitter using the hashtag #patientchat. I immediately reached out to see how I could get involved. Leadership discussed their strategic vision of having “managers” for different cancers that would create and curate content to educate other cancer patients and help them feel empowered. I was honored when I was told that I would pilot this program as the Thyroid Cancer Network Manager, and my content would be read and shared by others.

The PEN Network Manager program officially launched in March 2020 with the goal “to support health communities around important topics and provide navigation for the path to empowerment. Through various mediums, social media platforms and content formats, network managers develop specific messages, seek out resources and contribute to amplifying the needs of specific health communities via guidance of an established editorial calendar.” For example, I’ve had the opportunity to write a variety of blog posts and participate in tweet chats on a number of different topics, including resilience, health literacy, telehealth, and what it’s like to be an adolescent and young adult (AYA) with cancer. It has been my greatest privilege to connect with other patients through this content, inspiring them to be their own advocate.

To find PEN’s current team of network managers, visit https://powerfulpatients.org/about/#networkmanagers. Clicking on each person’s picture will bring you to their bio as well as content they have created, including recipe guides, interviews, comedy sketches, infographics, and more. Note also that each manager has a personal PEN email that you can use to contact them. PEN managers thrive on encouraging patients and their caregivers to feel more confident in voicing concerns and communicating with their healthcare team, and ultimately empower them to become advocates for themselves and their loved ones.

Joining PEN’s network of cancer managers has truly been inspiring. Although we’re all across the world, conversing with them via email and Zoom chats and hearing their stories and thoughts of how to resonate with more patients is what feeds my soul. PEN is constantly growing, with their goal of representing all cancers. For more information on how you can get involved, please contact Nykema, PEN’s Network Manager Coordinator, at kema@powerfulpatients.org.


As a caregiver and Care Partner Network Manager with PEN, I constantly search for practical information to use and pass along to those I support. I offer support by listening and providing solutions to empower caregivers to improve their resilience. – Sherea


 

Communicating About Cancer: A Brief Guide to Telling People Who Care

Getting a cancer diagnosis can easily be the most terrifying, heart-wrenching experiences one has in their lifetime. Everything from different treatment options (if you’re lucky), to financing, and maintaining quality of life suddenly are in full force front and center. It can be hard to know who to turn to if you’re not directed to a support group (of which there are many), and especially how to tell loved ones and co-workers. The choice is yours, of course, in whom you wish to tell and when – there is no right or wrong answer. (However, I and many others have found that having a caregiver to help manage appointments, billing, etc. can help).

Should you choose to tell others, here are some tips that I have read and/or heard from other cancer patients/survivors as well as some I have found personally helpful:

Kids:

  • It depends on the age – using simpler terms with younger kids (8 and under) may be more helpful, while older kids and teens can understand more detail. For example, saying that you’re sick and you’re getting the best care from a team of doctors who really want to help you get better
  • According to the American Cancer Society, children need to know the basics, including:
    • The name of the cancer
    • The specific body part(s) of where it is
    • How it’ll be treated
    • How their own lives will be affected
  • Think of a list of questions ahead of time that you think they may ask and jot down answers, such as how the cancer happened (that it’s not anyone’s fault), if it’s contagious, and/or if it’ll be fatal
  • Make sure that they know you are open to talking about it at any time. You can also perform check-ins with each other to monitor feelings

Family and friends:

  • Select a group of people, including immediate family and close friends
  • Divulge information only you feel comfortable sharing. Maybe it’s the basics, as mentioned above, or more detailed information
  • Prepare for different reactions, including sadness, anger, frustration, depression, anxiety, compassion, and support
  • Also prepare for people to not feel comfortable and feel as if they’re helpless. A cancer diagnosis is a heavy weight to bear, and not everyone will feel like the have the capacity to help as much as they want to
  • As the patient, tell them how you’re looking for support (ex. what are your needs during this time, including physical, emotional, mental). Guiding members of your support system to get your needs met may help them feel more at ease and able to help

Work:

  • Telling a supervisor/manager may be one of the hardest tasks for fear of discrimination
    • However, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which covers employers with 15 ore more employees, prohibits discrimination based on:
      • Actual disability
      • A perceived history of disability
      • A misperception of current disability
      • History of disability
    • The ADA also:
      • Protects eligible cancer survivors from discrimination in the workplace
      • Requires eligible employers to make “reasonable accommodations” to allow employees to function properly on the job
      • Ensure that employers must treat all employees equally
    • The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) also gives you the right to take time off due to illness without losing your job
      • However, an employee must have worked for his or her employer for at least 12 months, including at least 1,250 hours during the most recent 12 months in order to qualify. The law applies to workers at all government agencies and schools nationwide as well as those at private companies with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius
    • The Federal Rehabilitation Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because they have cancer
      • However, this act applies only to employees of the federal government, as well as private and public employers who receive public funds

Sources:

Reaching the Peak: Finding Resilience During Cancer

What does it mean to be “resilient” as a cancer survivor? Does it mean having the courage to remain positive? The strength to carry yourself into the next chapter of this “new normal” life?

In my opinion, having resilience or being resilient means all those things and more. However, resilience can also be built upon a collaborative effort made by both the patient and their healthcare team.

In the recent 2020 symposium held by the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, results were presented from a survey that stated patients believe that being proactive in the beginning of treatment can lead to better health outcomes. Part of being proactive on the patient side is asking questions of your care about diagnosis and prognosis, treatment options, physical/mental/emotional side effects, and short-term and long-term effects on quality of life. During the treatment process being proactive can also consist of contacting your care team with questions rather than guessing what “should be” happening, instructions on how to take medications, and any unexplained side effects.

Managing these side effects can also count as resilience. For example, speaking with a social worker or seeing a therapist may help with the emotional trauma of a diagnosis. Moving your body and getting your blood flowing by walking, running, yoga, and other forms of exercise can show mental and physical resilience. Most importantly, asking for help when you need it and being specific in what you need can show determination.

At the end of treatment, the journey is not over. Rather, it can feel like it’s just beginning. As you look back on how far you’ve come, contemplate if there’s anything you would’ve done differently. Maybe you were fearful, and now you’re more curious. Maybe you were afraid to share your story and what people would think of you. Now you know that none of that matters, except what you think, what you feel. Your story is powerful, your feelings are valid, and you have the courage to push forward.

Resilience isn’t something to be won; it’s something to be explored. Just like a diagnosis, it doesn’t come easy. But take a moment, breathe, and know that there are people rooting for you. Keep going.

Cancer: The Scariest Ride of Them All

June is home to National Cancer Survivors Day (June 7th), a day to celebrate the journey of survivors, who are defined as “patients diagnosed with cancer.” While there are multiple resources for cancers patients, including an entire website dedicated to the National day, I thought that I would share my perspective of what it means to be a patient/survivor on an emotional/mental level:

Emotional/Mental

  • Sadness and in denial when diagnosed
  • Angry that this is happening to you specifically
  • Hopeless because of a lack of control
  • Frustration when you don’t understand your treatment plan
  • Guilt knowing other cancer patients have it worse
  • Anxiety when preparing for a scan or an appointment
  • Betrayal when you find out who your true friends and family are
  • Hope knowing you may make it out on the other side
  • Strong when you make it through the next chemo and/or radiation treatment
  • Resilient when you’re declared “in remission
  • Fear that the cancer may come back

This is only a glimpse into the many feelings felt, the life that is suddenly a roller coaster with ups and downs and hidden twists and turns. Sometimes you may not hear the whole story, the emotions guarded underneath a face that tries to “be strong” through it all. Really take a listen when you, as a caregiver, a medical professional, a friend, or a family member, ask a cancer patient, “How are you feeling?” Look at the facial expressions, the body language, and the words they’re using. To summarize: Be present.

Health Exercises to Tap Into Your Resiliency

The current pandemic the world is facing has caused a whirlwind of emotions, especially for immunocompromised patients, including cancer patients. Every feeling, from grief to sadness, and anger to hopelessness, has been magnified as our minds take a toll and our level of vulnerability has grown.

Right now, we are doing the best we can with the knowledge, experiences, and tools that we have. A couple of ways to utilize these tools and stay grounded during this time include meditation and exercise. Below are a list of resources, including ones I have personally used, that can be utilized to build inner and outer strength.

Walking

A great form of exercise that can be done anywhere and doesn’t require any equipment. During your walks, take in the scenery around you. Challenge yourself by quickening your pace, going up and down hills, or see how far you can go in a specific amount of time.

Yoga

Another activity that requires little to no equipment. Find free videos on YouTube or look to see if a local studio is offering online classes. Yoga allows your mind to calm and your stress hormone levels to reduce as you focus on slower movements and breath work.

Aerobics or high-intensity interval training (HIIT)

Helps improve cardiovascular health and endurance through quick movements done in rounds and can utilize the entire body. YouTube and Instagram are great places to look for these types of exercises. You can also incorporate weights (if you have them) to make it more challenging.

Strength training or weight lifting

Beneficial for both men and women, and burns more calories over time. You don’t have to be buff to lift weights or even have equipment. Buckets filled with heavy items or other things with handles, soup cans, bags of flour, a dish towel, or even body weight can be used to break a sweat. Again, YouTube and Instagram are your places for videos. Pinterest can also be helpful by searching for “body weight exercises,” or “exercises with no equipment.”

  • Mastering the form of each exercise is crucial to avoid injuries. Form > the amount of weight you can lift.
  • Do each exercise slowly. Form a mind-muscle connection.
  • Don’t forget to breathe!
  • Stretch!
  • Favorite exercises:
    • Bicep curls
    • Tricep dips
    • Bent over rows (back)
    • Rear delt flys (deltoids)
    • Upright rows (shoulders/trapezoids)
    • Squats
    • Deadlifts: Romanian, sumo, one-leg, stiff-leg (hamstrings)
    • Calf raises
    • Military press (shoulders)
    • Chest press

Meditation

Meditation is a wonderful practice that can be used to mitigate negative thoughts and distractions. This is important any time, not just during quarantine! One of the best things about meditation: you don’t have to be perfect! Meditation takes dedication and practice. YouTube has free, guided meditations that can be done in any quiet space. Some have someone spreading, while others are simply music. Apps, such as Headspace and Calm, also offer guided meditations.

How to Make the Most of a Virtual Visit

“Well, we need to check your titer,” the doctor explained as he went over my lab results via a recent Zoom call. “Titer?” I thought. I know I’ve heard that term before, but I wasn’t really sure what it meant. The doctor reappeared the word a few more times, exacerbating my confusion. I was too embarrassed to ask what he meant; he was talking quickly. When he eventually said, “The titer is the strength of the antibodies in your blood,” I finally understood and felt more at ease.

As we face this pandemic, chronic and/or rare disease patients like myself are facing an extension of the “new normal” that everyone is experiencing firsthand. Our doctor’s appointments are critical times when we’re able to explain how we’re feeling, how our medication may or may not be working, and what the next steps are. But our visits become different when our face to face sessions turn virtual. I believe we become more vulnerable, as we invite the doctors into our home lives.

While healthcare has certainly come a long way and telemedicine has been on the horizon, virtual visits are now the norm. We have been placed, both as patient and healthcare professionals, in a position that allows us to take advantage of the technology we have and still provide and receive great care. In my opinion, these visits should not be considered a hassle, but rather an encounter that continues to focus on patient education as we face unprecedented times.

A part of patient education is health literacy. Health literacy can be defined in many ways, but the short, paraphrased version is that health literacy is the ability of patients to understand health information (verbal, visual, etc.) in order to make the best decisions about their health. This includes understanding the messages that are being conveyed to them by health professionals, including symptoms to look for and how to take medication. The case remains the same whether visits are in-person or virtual, perhaps with greater emphasis on the latter, in my opinion.

Below, I will highlight things that patients can do to make the most of their health appointment, with a focus on health literacy.

Tips for Patients

  1. Discuss any information you have questions about during your appointment, especially if it has jargon you don’t understand
  2. If a doctor speaks too quickly, tell them to slow down or repeat what they said
  3. Take notes during your appointment if having something visual helps you remember
  4. If your doctor mentions a word you’ve never heard of, ask them to define it
  5. Share your understanding of how a certain medication or treatment is helping you and/or if you think something could work better
  6. If you’re unsure of how to take a medication, show the label to your doctor to have them explain
  7. If you are provided with test results, ask your doctor to review them carefully with clear language

Tips for Patients on Staying Connected Despite Physical Distancing

We are in a crazy time right now, and no one has experienced anything like it…except for cancer patients. As high-risk patients, we know what it’s like to distance ourselves from others and practice good hygiene. I know I do.

As a thyroid cancer patient, I underwent radioactive iodine treatment, where I became radioactive. I was living with my family at the time, and I had to have my own room and bathroom. No family member could come within a certain distance from me. Not even my dog. I remember them leaving meals outside my door, and texting a parent or sibling when I needed something. It was strange, yes, but I knew it was what I had to do to keep myself and my family safe.

The same thing is happening right now. We’re told to stay at least 6 feet apart from people at all times. Performing normal tasks such as going to the grocery store, a friend’s house, and even work are no longer possible. It creates a sense of grief in all of us, as we feel lost without our normalcy. Instead, we are living a “new normal,” something that cancer patients have already been long accustomed to. It’s as if the rest of the world gets to see how we live, how we feel.

We may have to physically distance ourselves, but staying connected is still possible. And it is in these moments that we can learn how to cultivate strong relationships. We live in a world with an abundance of technology. We have the ability to call, text, email, video chat, Tweet, etc. Had this pandemic happened a long time ago, none of this would’ve been possible. Social distancing would be real.

To take advantage of the opportunities that are currently presented to us, I’d like to highlight the ways in which we can stay connected:

(NEW!) Virtual Empowered #PatientChat | Friday, May 15 @ 1PM EDT

The Virtual Empowered #PatientChat is a moderated conversation conducted online via Zoom and Facebook Live. This support group will feature an expert moderator, a panel of passionate patient advocates and care partners, and other people seeking a consistent friendly community. Learn more and register!

 Support groups via Zoom

  • Our Odyssey
  • Smith Center – for AYA patients (located in the Washington, D.C. area but is open to patients all over)
  • Look for ones from specific cancer orgs (ex. Thyca, Inc.)

Facebook support groups

These can be found for cancers from the general (ex. breast cancer) to the specific (ex. breast cancer with BRCA1 mutation)

Tweet chats

Search for these using the hashtag as seen below. A few of my favorites include:

  • #patientchat
  • #ThyCaTalk
  • #bcsm
  • #HealtheVoicesChat
  • #medtwitter
  • #HCLDR

The Value of Patient Communities

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I thought “This is all on me. I’m going to get through this on my own.” I didn’t want to burden anyone with my new “problem.” I had my family, of course, but even then, I didn’t wear them down with upcoming medical bills. In my mind cancer equaled a solo journey.

It wasn’t until late into my journey as a cancer patient that I found that I needed others. I needed a community of people like me who were going through the same thing I was. A group of people that I could call a “second family.” Searching for “thyroid cancer groups” on Google led me to Thyca, Inc., an organization specifically for thyroid cancer patients. They offer face-to-face support groups in my area, which I still try to attend.  In these groups, we’re able to freely share what we’re going through as a cancer patient and provide support to one another. Additionally, I found a group on Facebook that was specific for my type of thyroid cancer which provided even greater benefit, as we know that all cancers are different. In this group, we also share our experiences, but in a virtual format. In this way, more patients are able to come together to create a larger network of people with whom to connect and learn from.

Finding these online and in-person support groups provided me an outlet for which I could share my ups and downs and often find them reciprocated. Additionally, I learned information about what to look for in and how to communicate with an endocrinologist, a special type of physician for thyroid cancer patients. I learned about the different blood work levels to monitor in a language that made sense to me and not the scientific jargon I usually heard from my doctor. Most importantly, I found people who “get me.”

However, I was hesitant to share everything, even little bits and pieces of what I was going through and what I was feeling. Sharing data online can be scary, especially health data. That’s why it’s important to find websites and organizations that have confidentially and/or privacy policies in place and monitor people’s behavior. Look at what other patients are saying. How revealing are they being? Are they displaying appropriate behaviors (ex. helpful vs malicious)? If you feel uncomfortable, report it!

“Finding your tribe” is something I wish I had done earlier in my journey. I wish my doctors would’ve told me about support groups. As I’ve learned, a chronic illness is not something you go through alone, much less cancer. Having a group, whether it be large or small, face-to-face or virtual, can provide immense benefit for both emotional and mental health.If you’re struggling through your health journey alone and feel like you need someone to talk to or even provide a listening ear, find your community. Find “your” people. A simple Google search helped me, but there are a number of organizations to look out for. Here are some of my favorites I found as a cancer patient:

Inspire (chronic conditions, including cancers)

Our Odyssey (rare diseases, including cancers)

Facebook groups (general and specific to the type of cancer)

Twitter (find groups using hashtags)

American Cancer Society (search for support groups)

Stupid Cancer (virtual and in-person support groups)

Cancer Support Community (all cancers)

Cancerfighter.com (all cancers)

Don’t miss the Best Practices for Participating in a Patient Community Empowered #patientchat Friday 4/3 at 1pm ET | 10am PT with Carly!

Thyroid Cancer Network Manager

The drip-drip-dripping of the sink in the radiology room echoed loudly in my brain as I waited for the pathologist. I just had a biopsy done for two spots on my neck—one suspected to be cancerous. “A nodule,” my primary care physician had previously explained at my annual physical. The radiologist had comforted me, casually saying, “I wouldn’t worry, though. There’s only a ten to fifteen percent chance.”

In just a few minutes, I would be given my fate.

In January 2017, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I met my surgeon five months later. “What you have is called a papillarycarcinoma,” he said. “Doesn’t cancer come from tumors?” I thought. I looked up some terms in the National Cancer Institute’s Dictionary of Cancer

  • Nodule – A growth or lump that may be malignant (cancer) or benign (not cancer)
  • Carcinoma – cancer that begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs
  • Tumor – an abnormal mass of tissue that results when cells divide more than they should or do not die when they should. Tumors may be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). Also called neoplasm.

The dictionary helped, but why weren’t these words explained to me by the doctors? It sounded like all the terms were being used interchangeably, and my brain was already feeling corrupted by the diagnosis—I was struggling to comprehend my diagnosis.

My bewilderment grew as I tried to understand how the thyroid hormones, T3 and T4, worked together with thyroglobulin (a biomarker), and the pituitary gland located in the brain. I understood what hypothyroidism vs. hyperthyroidism meant, but only because I knew the symptoms of each, and would be able to tell my doctor if I was experiencing any of them.

I was told by multiple doctors that I had the “good” type of cancer, and I felt hopeless and quite stupid for asking them to repeat what they had just said, or for asking them to explain a term or biological process in a different way.

Coincidentally, I had just started my fourth month of graduate school in a program focused on health communication—one of my first classes was writing for health communicators. That’s where I learned that, as of 2003, when the U.S. Department of Education measured health literacy of various populations across the country

  • Only 53% had intermediate health literacy, or “having the skills necessary to perform moderately challenging activities.”
  • 12% had proficient health literacy, or “skills necessary to perform more complex and challenging literacy activities.”
  • Which means that more than 40% of the population is only able to understand the basics of their health.

It only gets worse for people living in poverty, the elderly, and racial minorities.

So how can we create health literacy equality among all populations?

The answer lies with patient advocacy and patient empowerment.

The doctor-patient relationship has changed significantly—for the better. Where once a patient relied on their doctor for information, to learn about a condition or a symptom, today, patients are finding this information online—and bringing their knowledge to appointments. They’re asking questions about their health and treatment paths. Some are even looking for answers about things that the doctor may not have heard of…yet!  

As a health care professional, are you:

  • Using terms that are patient-friendly or that are at grade level?
  • Using pictures or diagrams to simplify complex concepts?
  • Asking questions to make sure patients understand your instructions?
  • Explaining test results, documents, brochures, etc.?

Most importantly, are you taking the time to listen to the patient’s concerns, and addressing them in a clear, understandable manner?

When doctors and health care providers take time to engage with them, patients feel more empowered to take charge of their health, and to become their own advocates. When the fearful become fearless is when real change happens.

Putting the Human Back in Healthcare

I recently listened to one of my favorite podcasts, “What Should I Read Next.” The premise of the podcast is the host, Anne Bogel, chats with a guest about their reading life, including three books they love, one book they don’t, and what they’re currently reading. In a recent episode, she spoke with a physician who was about to retire. She said that she had been trying to read more books with different genres, as her main focus for the majority of her life and education had been science-based texts. She grew up in the library reading a variety of books and still tries to educate herself by going to lectures and author talks. However, she was looking for more books that focused on the humanities. HUMAN. Which got me thinking about my background in health communication and my passion for health literacy. I know that one of the many reasons that doctors go into the medical field is because they want to help people. They have a strong sense of empathy and the passion to care for others. However, throughout all of the scientific jargon that they retain and medical knowledge that they gain, they may lose the ability to connect one on one with the patient, to really understand what’s going on behind the aches and pains. Plus, office visits with patients are getting shorter. Doctors don’t have the time to really understand what is going on with the patient before they try and get them in and out to move on to the next. They feel rushed, and as a result, the patient can walk out not knowing what happened. According to the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, poor communication can have a detrimental effect on people’s health. For example, patients may not comply with doctors’ orders because of a lack of understanding. It can also hurt medical practices as patients have the option to leave doctors who they feel do not communicate well and therefore, a lack of trust develops.1

So how can we fix this? Can we emerge communication education into the medical curriculum, including required continuing medical education? Can we focus on the human connection that led these doctors to practice medicine in the first place?

Here are a few suggestions for physicians:

  • Pay attention to the patient though active listening. Repeat back to them what they’re saying to develop an understanding.
  • Use lay-friendly language. Patients come in because they feel sick, something is wrong. Being bogged down with medical jargon isn’t going to help.
  • Use the teach-back method. Have the patient repeat back what you told them.
  • Use pictures of graphics to explain complex concepts.
  • Talk to them about other aspects of their life. It’s not just an illness you’re treating, but a patient with a life outside of the doctor’s office.
  • Show that you have the time to listen even if time is short. Patients know when they’re being rushed.

What do you as a patient want from your doctor? What do you feel is lacking in the patient-physician relationship?


Sources:

  1. https://www.ahrq.gov/cahps/quality-improvement/improvement-guide/6-strategies-for-improving/communication/strategy6gtraining.html