Beating Burnout: Self-Care Strategies for Patient Advocates

As patient advocates we are highly motivated to make things better for others. Our commitment and passion for the work we do can lead us to take on more activities with ever-increasing demands on our time and energy. All of this we do willingly, but this work doesn’t happen without a degree of personal cost. “If we are living with the condition, it is personal beyond measure,” writes diabetes advocate Renza Scibilia. “If we are caring for someone and advocating for them, there is a different sense of pressure and investment. And if we decide that this is ‘a calling’ and do it professionally, there is a difference again as we try to work within different parameters – the need to keep within the realms of what our work allows, and the less structured realities of actually living with a health condition.”

Commenting on the nature of patient advocacy, therapist Karin Sieger [1] points out, “this area can be heightened with emotions because lives can depend on it and often advocates themselves are directly or indirectly affected by patient care aspects or illness they are advocating for. It stands to reason that those involved in advocacy will be at the receiving end of emotional, mental and physically draining activities.”   Given this fact, it’s not uncommon to experience symptoms of burnout the longer we work in the field of advocacy.

“This is a real thing,” says patient leader and two-time cancer survivor, Shari Berman [2]. “Working without pay but as a patient leader is recipe for burnout especially when you feel like the needle isn’t moving.”  As metastatic breast cancer patient and advocate, Julia Maues [3] says, “Oh the burnout is so real and so unique. For once, many of us have the same illness as the people we are advocating for. It’s like advocating for better lives for prisoners while being jail ourselves.”

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of chronic stress which occurs when we’ve taken on too much and in the words of Sieger, “overstepped our coping threshold.”  Scibilia describes how she has “found myself at that breaking point on more than one occasion when the system is failing me, and equally, when I see it failing others and I can’t help.”

One of the lesser acknowledged contributing factors to burnout, particularly in the field of cancer advocacy, is the emotional toll of losing friends to the disease. As Susan Zager, founder of the non-profit organization, Advocates for Breast Cancer (A4BC) [4] describes, “the biggest factor that’s caused me burnout is the intense loss and grief of losing so many friends and family to this terrible disease.” Research advocate, AnneMarie Ciccarella [5] agrees.  “I had to force myself to take a step back from actively supporting individual people in favor of more research advocacy because the losses became unbearable,” she explains. “There are times I’ll look at a particular blog post and start crying when I read the comments. I see comments from so many who are now gone and it’s heartbreaking.”

Pamela Katz Ressler, founder of Stress Resources [6], draws a distinction between burnout and compassion fatigue which can co-exist with burn-out.   “Compassion fatigue is generally rapid onset and often is the result of exposure to extreme suffering or witnessing traumatic events and situations,” she explains. “It can be one event or a cumulative exposure. Burnout can be described as emotional (and physical) exhaustion leading to withdrawal and disconnection from activities that once were meaningful. As advocates, we often expend energy, caring, and empathy as if it comes from a bottomless well.”

Spotting the Signs of Burnout

Burnout doesn’t happen suddenly. It creeps up on us over time, but our bodies and minds do give us warning signs. Symptoms can include physical and emotional exhaustion; impaired concentration; increased irritability or feelings of apathy, detachment or cynicism related to the work you are doing.  In the words of Scibilia, “I get tired. I get overwhelmed. I get discouraged. I get disengaged. I get disheartened.

Looking at some of the common factors related to burnout, Sieger points to:

  • An inability to say ‘no’.
  • The fear of putting our needs first and in doing so letting others down.
  • Taking on too much because we want to please, need to control, cannot delegate, want to micro-manage, cannot trust anyone else to do things for or with us, or have no-one to share responsibilities with.
  • We are not sufficiently in touch with our bodies, minds or emotions to see the tell signs.
  • We think it is a sign of strength and authority to be able to take on more and more.
  • We are afraid of becoming replaceable.
  • We find it difficult to accept, that we can no longer take on as much as before.

If you recognize your own tendency towards any of these factors, you may be at risk of burnout. Katz Ressler advises that “the first step in preventing burnout and compassion fatigue is awareness and recognition that the well of empathy, energy and caring needs to continually be refilled.”  The following self-care strategies and tips can help you, in the words of Katz Ressler, “refill the well of empathy to maintain your ability to advocate effectively.”

14 Self-Care Strategies to Address Burnout

“Different people have different ways that work well for them, says Sieger.  “Self-care, keeping health boundaries, a healthy diet, limited stress, moderate exercise, sufficient sleep and quiet down-time are the essentials.”

Let’s take a deeper dive into these essential strategies and add a few more to our self-care toolkit.

1. Set realistic expectations. Patient advocate, Liza Bernstein [7], believes a key element in managing burnout is to set realistic expectations. “One key to mitigating patient advocacy burnout is to recognize our role and agency in trying to manage it,” she says. “It is not easy, once you’re diagnosed with and treated for cancer to reconcile your new physical and emotional reality with the non-cancer person you used to be. So we have unrealistic expectations.” Bernstein describes her “burnout prevention strategy” at the 2018 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. “It was a few months after a surgery and I wasn’t yet 100%,” she explains. “So I gave myself ‘The Talk’ and granted myself permission to do ‘as little as possible’ there; e., I paced myself, took breaks, and didn’t burden myself with ableist expectations. I did more tangible things tuning out the presentation & DM’ing people in my network to connect a distressed newly diagnosed person with a second opinion appointment. Seems like small thing but had big impact!”

2. Take breaks between big projects. Try to avoid jumping from one time-consuming project to the next in order to give your mind and body a chance to recover. “When projects turn into being a tedious chore, that’s a big sign of burn out,” says patient advocate Mary Pettigrew [8], who advises, “make it a habit to purge the unfulfilling, stressful activities, keep those of value and explore new territory/opportunities.”

3. Learn to prioritize. Ovarian cancer advocate, Dee Sparacio, wrote on her blog [9] about taking a step back from her heavy work-load of advocacy activities to focus on her priorities. She outlined a list of questions to help her decide which activities to prioritize:

  • How effective am I at doing that work?
  • Am I the only one doing that work?
  • If I am the only one can another advocate/person do it?
  • How much does the work benefit other survivors/patients?
  • How many people are effected by the work I do?
  • Do I ever regret having agreed to do the work and feel that way when I am doing it?
  • Does the work ever prevent me from doing other things – like hang out with my husband, grand-kids or dog?
  • Does that work bring me joy?

Remember, to quote Stage 4 melanoma patient, Kay Curtin [10], “it’s very easy to get caught up trying to fix everyone’ else’s priorities.” These questions can act as a helpful guide when it comes to reassessing your own priorities and what matters to you.

4. Say no. Self-care may involve you saying no more often, which, if you are like me, you might find challenging. There are always new opportunities or requests for your time, but an important element of self-care is the ability to pace yourself.  Before you say yes to the next request, look at the time and energy you have in a realistic way.  Follow Sparacio’s advice “I review my advocacy work and its impact once a year. I keep what brings me joy -not necessarily that which brings me exposure. The hard thing is learning to say no. If I say no I will provide the name of a new advocate voice. We need to cultivate new voices.”

5. Schedule time for yourself each day. “Schedule time to step away from ‘doing’ and shift to ‘being’. Take five minutes to turn off your phone, notice your breath and release muscle tension in your body,” recommends Katz Ressler. “I’ll hit the beach collecting shells to clear my head, but a simple walk around the block is helpful too,” says Ciccarella, “and when I have nothing left, I give myself permission to hit the sofa and turn on mindless, silly television.”

6. Feed Your Fighting Spirit. Registered dietitian and founder of “Dam. Mad. About Breast Cancer”[11], Cathy Leman reminds us of the importance of good nutrition in maintaining a healthy balance. “Balanced blood sugar for sustained energy and optimizing your immune system so you stay well are just two benefits of nourishing your body with quality meals and snacks,” she says. “Dried, fresh and frozen fruit, nuts, pre-washed and bagged veggies, whole grains and good olive oils and flavored vinegars can help you pull meals and snacks together quickly and easily.”

7. Control your devices. iPads, computers, and smartphones are essential tools in the patient advocate’s toolkit, but they can consume large amounts of your time and energy. Get in the habit of turning them off as much as possible, particularly before you go to bed at night.

8. Slumber Your Way to Good Health. “With all you have to get done, getting adequate sleep may fall to the bottom of your list,” says Leman “But when you don’t get the sleep your body needs (and deserves!), your overall performance suffers.” A good morning, she advises always begins the night before. “Create an evening ‘sleep hygiene’ routine that signals to your brain and body you’re ready to call it a day. When you’re well rested, you’ll have more patience, clarity of thought and focus to do your important work. And as a bonus? Getting enough sleep helps you make healthier food choices, which supports good health all the way around.”

9. Exercise Your Body’s Need to Move. “You need mental clarity, focus and stamina, and regular exercise is a simple way to tap those reserves,” advises Leman. “Even a 10 minute walk can clear brain fog, deliver nutrients and oxygen to every cell in your body, and build physical endurance for the long haul. Combine strength training, cardiovascular, core, flexibility and balance exercises as often as possible for a well-rounded fitness routine that will keep you moving forward.”

10. Take time for reflection. Taking time, whether it’s sitting quietly on your own, journaling, or speaking with a friend or therapist to reflect on what’s going on for you is important. “It’s important for all of us in this space to pause, assess, and take whatever time we need to reboot,” advises Ciccarella, for whom writing is “a powerful outlet to deal with all of my feelings. Identifying my feelings and their underlying cause allows me to accept the feeling and FEEL it – whether it’s fear, anger, grief -really, any emotion that drags me down.”

11. Don’t go it alone. Whether it’s peer support, or a professional, find a group or an individual who can support you on this journey. “I would even go as far as saying that having another independent professional to support us is essential,” suggests Sieger, “like supervision for therapists and counsellors, where we can talk things over, an outlet for our pressure and feelings.”

12. Intentionally step away from your “tribe” for short periods of time to refill your reserves, advises Katz Ressler. “Detribe” is a term she coined a number of years ago that may seem counterintuitive. As she explains it: “How can we step away from our ‘tribe’ when there is so much to do? Research shows that by intentionally engaging in self-care activities (think meditation, a walk in nature, a cup of tea with a friend) burnout can be reduced or eliminated.”

13. Choose what works for you. “You have to find what works for you,” says Bernstein. “It might not be a massage/spa, it might be doing what you love, giving back, being in nature, taking a nap, patting your dog… it really means being compassionate to you, as if you were your best friend.”  Katz Ressler echoes this and advocates practising a spirit of loving-kindness. “Allow yourself to be as kind and empathic to yourself as you are to others. What ‘gift’ would you give someone else to show they are appreciated? Give the same gift to yourself,” she says.

14. Knowing when it’s time to quit. Sometimes the best self-care is to quit. Sue Robins [12]  took the decision to do just that. “I still do advocacy but on my own terms, though writing and storytelling and with individuals. I handled my burnout by quitting the ‘patient engagement’ world.”

Take-home message

“Burnout in patient advocacy is real,” says Terri Coutee, founder of  DiepCFoundation.org [13] .  “It takes a tremendous amount of dedication and discipline with the potential of draining your personal emotional and physical energy.”  But the good news is that burnout is reversible. By putting the focus back on self-care, you can learn to manage your energy, time, and personal resources better.   Although, this too takes self- discipline. “I think it takes discipline (ie, effort) for many of us to remind ourselves we need to practice self-care regularly,” notes Bernstein.  As Coutee explains, “choosing the gym, saying no, and letting others take care of themselves are among the many actions requiring discipline. Choose the one that works for you so you can continue the work of patient advocacy with passion without burning out.”

Whichever path to self-care you choose, once burnout is recognized and attended to, it can become a chance to rediscover your commitment to the important work you do as advocates for better care for yourself, your loved ones and your community. Let these tips and techniques be a reminder that YOU are most deserving of the gift of self-care.


Resource Links:

[1] Karin Sieger

[2] Shari Berman

[3] Julia Maues

[4] Advocates for Breast Cancer

[5] AnneMarie Ciccarella

[6] Stress Resources

[7] Liza Bernstein

[8] Mary Pettigrew

[9] Dee’s blog

[10] Kay Curtin

[11] Dam. Mad. About Breast Cancer

[12] Sue Robins

[13] DiepCFoundation.org

How Do You Deal With Cancer Guilt?

It may come as a surprise to those who have not experienced cancer to learn that many cancer survivors suffer a form of “survivor guilt.”  Survivor guilt is most often associated with a reaction to surviving a traumatic event that others have died in, for example, survivors of combat, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or air crashes. Survivors feel guilty that they have survived the trauma and others – such as their family, friends, and colleagues – did not.

When the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) was published, survivor guilt was removed as a recognized specific diagnosis and redefined as a significant symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It seems clear to me that a diagnosis of cancer fits both the description of survivor guilt and PTSD too. Cancer is a traumatic experience and no-one who survives treatment comes out the other side unscathed.    As so many of us know, the end of treatment is not the end of dealing with cancer.  When we’re going through treatment, we are simply trying to survive and don’t really feel the full emotional impact that being diagnosed with cancer involves. It’s often only when treatment ends, that the full impact hits us.

Cancer Related Guilt is a Complex, Multi-Faceted Emotion

We may feel guilt at “surviving” when others have not.  Dee Sparacio writes of her feelings at a time when a friend’s husband died. “How could I face my friend?  How could I, NED [No Evidence of Disease] for 5 years since my recurrence face my friend. Would she look and me and think – why are you still here and my husband is gone?”

Karin Sieger also describes her experience of feeling guilty after a relative died from cancer.  “A few years after my first cancer treatment, the terminal cancer diagnosis of a relative of mine, her gradual and then very quick deterioration and death filled me with the old feeling of guilt,” she writes. “In the presence of the bereaved mother my own mother felt guilty that her child is still alive. Cancer guilt can happen to anyone affected by cancer, including relatives and friends.”

We might feel guilty that our lifestyle choices somehow contributed to a cancer diagnosis. If we have discovered we carry the BRCA1/2 gene, we may feel guilty that we could pass this gene mutation on to our children.  On her blog, Audrey Birt describes how “breast cancer guilt has stalked me. Even when I’ve thought I’d put that beast to rest, up it pops in various guises. My guilt as a parent for causing my family to suffer has been a long term one. Carrying the BRCA2 gene tipped me again into a spiral of grief and guilt but somehow staying with that and recognizing that for what it is has helped me move through it.”

Cancer Guilt May Arise During Any Stage

I have also heard from patients diagnosed with an earlier stage disease, and patients who didn’t have to go through chemotherapy that they felt less “deserving” of sympathy.  One of my blog readers wrote, “I felt like a fraud when diagnosed as in I didn’t need chemo just surgery, radiation and tamoxifen so I didn’t want to make any fuss when so many others had REAL cancer.”

Guilt may also arise from a sense that what I’m doing with my life must have greater meaning if my survival is to be justified. Another of my blog readers commented, “I feel guilty that I am not making more of my life. When I was going through treatment, I made all sorts of plans for what I would do when I finished. I was really going to make the most of my life, now that I’ve been given a second chance…but I am too tired and overwhelmed to do any of those things.”

If any of this sounds familiar to you, you are not alone.  Feeling guilty at surviving cancer is a common experience and a perfectly normal reaction to what you have gone through. When I asked the question of my breast cancer community on Twitter “how you deal with survivor guilt?” I received some great answers.   I hope you will find comfort and practical advice in the quotes below.

“Cancer guilt was related to my family. Years before my diagnosis, my dad died of cancer. So they all had to do it again with me though a different situation. I felt huge guilt about my dad for not understanding. Counseling helped a lot. I would recommend counseling for sure. Or friends who listen and allow you to air the emotion.” Julia

Survivor’s Guilt

“I do feel a certain amount of “survivor’s guilt” since my cancer was stage 0 and no chemo or radiation-just surgery. Volunteering at a cancer support center helps me and inspires me filling me with hope – witnessing patients fortitude and determination to regain their health is so inspiring.” Susan

“The survivor guilt I felt was a sense of discomfort. I was quite possibly picking up someone else’s anger, frustration and despair at their own situation. But it is their situation, not mine. And since my second diagnosis I certainly have nothing to feel guilty about or to apologize for. We have a choice not do guilt, and also do not need anyone else to do guilt for us.” Karin

“As I’ve lost friends and colleagues to breast cancer I’ve grieved for them with an added complexity. What made the difference? Why did I survive and not them? In some ways I’m embarrassed I’m still here, four diagnosis later. It’s a form of madness to feel guilty you haven’t died, to feel guilty your treatment isn’t as bad as others, to feel guilty you’ve survived more than 20 years since your first diagnosis. I know it makes no sense but it’s easy to carry guilt along with everything else. But it serves no purpose and is fueled by a media that feeds a view of the cancer experience which is unrealistic, overly simplistic and laden with judgment.” Audrey

Overcoming Cancer Guilt

In his book, Travelling Light (The Columba Press) Daniel J. O’Leary quotes Bearwatcher, an Apache medicine man. “In the Apache language there is no word for ‘guilt.’ Our lives are like diamonds. When we are born we are pure and uncut. Each thing that happens to us in our lives teaches us how to reflect the light in the world; each experience gives us a new cut, a new facet in our diamond. How brilliantly do those diamonds sparkle whose facets are many, to whom life has given many cuts.”

So when you experience those feelings of guilt, contemplate the brilliant new facet in your diamond and reflect on the way that you can reflect that light in the world. You will best honor the memory of those friends who have died, by looking to the future and pledging to make the best life you can for yourself and those you care about. Life is a precious gift and you have been given the opportunity to recommit yourself to it. Now is your time to live; so armed with the lessons you have learned from your cancer experience, look to the future and shine with the brilliance of your diamond light.

Did you find this blog post useful? If so, please consider donating so that we can continue to provide valuable content.

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Resource Links:

 Dee Sparacio

Audrey Birt

Karin Sieger

Is there a hierarchy among cancer survivors?

Twitter Comments:

Julia

Susan

After Cancer, Ambushed By Depression

At some stage in all our lives there comes a time when feelings of sadness, grief or loneliness gets us down. It is part of being human. And after all, what’s more human than feeling down after such a life-changing and stressful event like cancer? Most of the time, we bounce back; but what happens when the blues stick around and start to interfere with our work, our relationships and our enjoyment of life?

Dana Jennings, whose writings in the New York Times about his treatment for prostate cancer, so eloquently captured the mix of feelings which cancer survivors face after treatment ends, wrote that while he was “buoyed by a kind of illness-induced adrenaline” during treatment, once treatment ended, he found himself “ambushed by depression.”

Jennings’ words will have a familiar ring to many of us who have struggled with that unexpected feeling of depression and loneliness that creeps up on us after treatment is finished. For some survivors, depression kicks in shortly after diagnosis or at some stage during treatment; for others it may ambush them weeks, months or even years after treatment ends.

What Causes Depression?

Depression is a word that means different things to each of us; people use it to describe anything from a low mood to a feeling of hopelessness.  However, there is a vast difference between clinical depression and sadness. Sadness is a part of being human; it comes and goes as a natural reaction to painful circumstances, but it passes with time. Depression goes beyond sadness about a cancer diagnosis or concern about the future.

In its mildest form, depression doesn’t stop you leading your normal life, but it does make things harder to do and seem less worthwhile. At its most severe, the symptoms of clinical depression are serious enough to interfere with work, social life, family life, or physical health.

Incidence of Depression in Cancer Survivors

Research shows that cancer survivors are more likely than their healthy peers to suffer psychological distress, such as anxiety and depression, even a decade after treatment ends. Although estimates of the frequency of depression in cancer patients vary, there is broad agreement that patients who face a disruptive life   event like cancer have an increased risk of depression that can persist for many years.  While most people will understand that dealing with a chronic illness like cancer causes depression, not everyone understands that depression can go on for many months (and even years) after cancer treatment has ended.

The Challenge of Identifying Depression in Cancer Patients

Some research has indicated that depression has been underdiagnosed and undertreated in cancer patients.  This may result from several factors, including patients’ reluctance to report depression, physician uncertainty about how best to manage it, and the belief that depression is a normal part of having cancer.

Several of the characteristics of major depression listed below– like fatigue, cognitive impairment, poor sleep, and change of appetite or weight loss—are hard to distinguish from the common side effects of cancer treatment. This makes it harder to tease apart the psychological burden of cancer, the effects of treatment, and the biochemical effects of the disease.

Are You At Risk of Depression?

Depression can occur through a combination of factors, with some of us being more prone to depression than others.  Factors such as a history of depression, a history of alcohol or substance abuse, and a lack of social support can increase the risk of depression in both the general population and among cancer patients.

Even if a person is not in a high-risk category, a diagnosis of cancer is associated with a higher rate of depression, no matter the stage or outcome of the disease.

Distress over a cancer diagnosis is not the same thing as clinical depression – it is important to recognize the signs and get treatment. The first step is to identify if you are experiencing symptoms of depression.

Try answering the following two questions.

Have you, for more than two weeks (1) felt sad, down or miserable most of the time? (2) Lost interest or pleasure in most of your usual activities?

If you answered ‘YES’ to either of these questions, you may have depression (see the symptom checklist below). If you did not answer ‘YES’ to either of these questions, it is unlikely that you have a depressive illness.

Depression Checklist*

(Tick each of the symptoms that apply to you)

  • Trouble sleeping with early waking, sleeping too much, or not being able to sleep
  • On-going sad or “empty” mood for most of the day
  • Finding it hard to concentrate or make decisions
  • Feeling restless and agitated, irritable or impatient
  • Extreme tiredness and lethargy
  • Feeling emotionally empty or numb
  • Not eating properly; losing or putting on weight
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities most of the time
  • Crying a lot
  • Losing interest in your sex life
  • Preoccupied with negative thoughts
  • Distancing yourself from others
  • Feeling pessimistic about the future
  • Anger, irritability, and impatience

Add up the number of ticks for your total score: _______

What does your score mean?

  • 4 or less: You are unlikely to be experiencing a depressive illness
  • 5 or more: It is likely that you may be experiencing a depressive illness.

NB This list is not a replacement for medical advice. If you’re concerned that you or someone you know may have symptoms of depression, it’s best to speak to your doctor.

Depression – The Way Forward

It’s common to experience a range of emotions and symptoms after a cancer diagnosis, including feelings of stress, sadness and anger. However, some people experience intense feelings of hopelessness for weeks, months, or even years after diagnosis. If you continue to experience emotional distress from your cancer, it’s very important to know that help is available, and to get the help you need.

The first step on the path to recovery is to accept your depression as a normal reaction to what you have been through –don’t try to fight it, bury it or feel ashamed that it is there.  Think of your depression as just another symptom of cancer. If you were in physical pain, you would seek help, and it’s the same for depression.  There are many people willing to help you but the first step is to let someone know how you are feeling. Finding the courage to talk to just one person, whether that’s a loved one, primary care physician, or specialist nurse will often be the first step towards healing.

The psychological effects of cancer are only beginning to be studied and understood. In time, doctors will not only treat the body to kill the cancer, but will treat the mind which suffers the consequences of the disease long after the body has healed. When you’re depressed it can feel like you are barely existing. By obtaining the correct medical intervention and learning better coping skills, however, you can not only live with depression, but live well.

A Note on Helping a Loved One with Depression

Perhaps you are reading this because you’re concerned about a loved one who might have depression.   You may be wondering how you can help. For people who have never experienced the devastating depths of major clinical depression, it may be difficult to understand what your loved one is going through. Depressed people find it hard to ask for help, so let your friend or family member know that you care, you believe in them and that you’re there for them.

The best thing you can is to listen. Don’t offer preachy platitudes about things never being as bad as you think, or suggesting the person snap out of the depression. Our culture doesn’t encourage people to talk about their emotional pain. We’re taught to suppress our feelings, not to show weakness, to get over things quickly. Most people, when they feel upset, benefit greatly by talking to someone who listens with empathy and without judgment. Most of the time the person who is depressed is not looking for advice, but just knowing that someone cares enough to listen deeply can make all the difference.


*References: American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th ed (DSM-IV). Washington, DC: APA, 1994; and, International classification of diseases and related health problems, 10th revision. Geneva, World Health Organisation, 1992-1994.

Patient Advocacy: How to Create a Visually Compelling Message

Patient advocacy involves sharing your unique knowledge and experience of a disease or condition with the ultimate aim of raising awareness and influencing people to create a desired change. An effective advocacy message is credible, clear and convincing.  When it comes to creating content to support your message, the type of content you create matters.

In an age when people’s attention span averages 8 seconds (that’s shorter than a goldfish!) visuals are memorable and effective because they help people process, understand and retain information more quickly. Furthermore, in an increasingly crowded social media landscape, images can break through the online clutter so more people can find your message.

6 reasons why visual content is effective at getting your message across

  1. People are drawn to images. Eye-tracking studies show people spend longer looking at images on a website than reading text.
  2. People connect more emotionally with images than text.
  3. Our brains process images faster – up to 60,000 times faster than text.
  4. We remember pictures better than any other stimuli. According to neuroscientist, John Medina, we will remember 10 percent of information three days later. But if we add a picture recall goes up to 65 percent.
  5. Images are a universal language. They can be understood regardless of language differences.
  6. Images are shared more often than text only posts. Visual content is more than 40X more likely to get shared on social media than other types of content according to research by Buffer.

How to create your own eye-catching visuals

It used to be the case that to create graphics you had to have graphic design skills, but now any one of us can design eye-catching images using a variety of free and easy-to use apps and online tools.   Below you’ll find listed some of my favorite sites which I use to create professional looking graphics – without spending a cent.

  1. Canva is one of my every-day go-to tools when I am creating visuals. Whether you want to create a Twitter post or Facebook header image, you can do so quickly using Canva’s drag and drop editor. Select from a number of pre-set designs or create something from scratch. It has a multitude of layout options, fonts, images and illustrations to choose from.  You can also add elements such as custom icons, fonts, charts, and illustrations.
  2. Quotes Cover turns quotes or short text into images for social media. You can also use it to create high-resolution images for posters or other print design. Simply enter your quote or text and then choose your preferred design elements, such as font, shadow effect, and color.
  3. Stencil is a super quick and easy way to create graphics. It gives you access to 860,000+ background images. You can add whatever text and/or graphics you’d like to these and directly share them on social media. If you like sharing quotes on social media you can take advantage of their ready to add quotes feature.
  4. Easil is an online graphic design tool with pre-made templates that you can adapt in seconds with simple drag-and-drop tools. It’s especially useful for Instagram and Facebook stories.
  5. Infographics are a great way to present your data in a creative and visually appealing way (see this infographic created by metastatic breast cancer advocate, Jo Taylor, to raise awareness of the signs of secondary breast cancer). To create your own infographics, use a tool like am.
  6. Use Screencastify to create screenshots. This is one of the easiest ways to create images to simply and clearly explain a concept. I also use Snagit and Awesome Screenshot to create my screenshots.
  7. Social Media Resizer is a useful tool to optimize your images for each of the social media sites you are sharing on.  If you don’t size your images correctly for each social network, people won’t be able to see or read them clearly.

Where to find the best images for your graphics

I’m sure you already know that you can’t simply use pictures that appear on Google’s image search. Instead, you need to use a site that provides images licensed as “Creative Commons” — this means the pictures are completely free to be used for personal purposes. The following list of image sites are all great sources of Creative Commons (CC) images.

  1. Flickr is a popular photo sharing platform that allows users to store, sort, search, and share their photos online. It includes a section for photos that have been shared with a Creative Commons license.
  2. FreePik offers users, high quality graphic designs and illustrations. It operates on a freemium business model which means, the majority of the resources offered at Freepik can be used for free, only having to credit the author of the illustration to Freepik.
  3. Pexels provides over 3,800 high resolution photos, collated from other free image sites — making it one of the largest free image directories. Pexels has also added a large library of stock videos to its site also under the CC license.
  4. Pixabay hosts over 650,000 free stock photos, vectors, and art illustrations free of copyrights under Creative Commons. The site also has a collection of stock videos. On the home page, you’ll find a small, curated collection of images and a search bar for more targeted results.
  5. Unsplash gives you access to a bank of 50,000+ free-to-use photos. You can subscribe to receive ten new images every ten days directly into your inbox.
  6. The New York Public Library This site is a living database with new materials added every day, featuring prints, photographs, maps, manuscripts, streaming video, and more.

With so many tools out there, there is no excuse for poor-quality visuals.  Whether it’s a Facebook cover photo, a blog image, or an infographic, there are tools for every skill level. Experiment to find which tools work for you and use them to add more visual appeal to your social media campaigns.

Words Matter: Why Cancer Isn’t a Game of Winners or Losers

Are you “battling” cancer? Do you know someone who has “lost their fight” with the disease and died?

It seems whenever we hear a story about someone with cancer, war metaphors are never far behind.  Cancer battles must invariably be bravely fought, won, or lost.  Using this metaphor implies that if a patient fights hard enough and/or long enough, he or she will be able to “win the war.” The trouble with using this particular kind of metaphor to describe cancer is it puts the burden of healing on patients by turning them into winners and losers.  As breast cancer blogger, Nancy Stordahl, writes in What Does Beating Cancer Mean Anyway? ”Struggling to live up to some gold standard of what beating cancer means, adds to the already exhausting burden. We need to stop patronizing and judging cancer patients based on misguided battle talk analogies. Cancer isn’t an opponent in some war game you can stomp out by mindset or determination.”

Besides, the battle metaphor takes no account of the sheer randomness of the disease. Using a statistical model that measures the proportion of cancer risk, across many tissue types, scientists from the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center published a study in 2015 which concluded that two-thirds of the variation in adult cancer risk across tissues can be explained primarily by “bad luck.” In other words, a major contributing factor to cancer is in fact beyond anyone’s control. For the most part, we don’t know why one person is alive 10 years after the diagnosis of advanced cancer, whereas another dies within months.

By this reasoning, no amount of fighting or battling cancer can affect its outcome.  Commenting on the study, the researchers said, “Many people have found relief in this research. Cancer has a long history of stigmatization. Patients and family members frequently blame themselves, believing there was something they could have done to prevent their or their family member’s cancer. We have heard from many of these families and are pleased that our analysis could bring comfort and even lift the burden of guilt in those who have suffered the physical and emotional consequences of cancer.”

Cancer is a disease; not a military campaign

Cancer is a disease; not a military campaign. In the words of patient and caregiver Jana Buhlman, “it’s a disease that people manage.”  Cancer is a complex disease. Yet there still exists a prevailing attitude to cancer which treats survival as though it were somehow an act of will.  You’ve got to be strong, remain positive and be courageous to overcome the disease.  Clodagh Loughrey, who was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years ago, explains, “I was absolutely petrified at the time, the opposite of strong or courageous, and to be also made to feel guilty for being scared by well-meaning exhortations to be ‘be positive’….people mean well and I didn’t want to sound ungrateful for the support as it is far worse (and easier for them) to avoid people with cancer, and some people did.”

What other diseases or condition do we say this about? “Do we fight a heart attack or a stroke? Are we told in any other illness to “keep fighting”? asks Jo Taylor, Founder of After Breast Cancer Diagnosis.   The fact is cancer doesn’t care how courageous or positive you are. Patients are in remission because treatment eliminated every cancer cell from their bodies, not because the patient fought courageously or was endlessly positive.  As a patient who is currently NED (i.e. no evidence of disease) I didn’t fight any harder than anyone else with this disease. I haven’t “beaten” cancer. I don’t know for sure that cancer will not come back again.

Cancer isn’t a game of winners and losers

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read about patients who are in remission from cancer, having “won their fight” against the disease. Journalists in particular seem incapable of writing about a person who has died from cancer without resorting to the “lost fight” cliché.  Julia Barnickle, who is living with metastatic breast cancer, points out that while she doesn’t like the term personally, “I have no problem with cancer patients using fighting talk. However, I do object to the media using it, especially in the situation where someone is said to have “lost their battle with cancer.” It’s simply a hackneyed way of grabbing attention.”

Does this imply that patients in remission have somehow done more than those who aren’t in remission?  Or that cancer progression or death from cancer is somehow an indication of failure – of not having had the ability to fight and defeat the enemy?  “It seems,” in the words of breast cancer blogger Maureen Kenny, “if you’ve got cancer you’re almost always seen as battling or fighting it, more often than not bravely. We never hear of anyone dying of the disease after a lacklustre, take or it or leave it, weak-willed tussle.”

Cancer shouldn’t be reduced in this way to a game of winners and losers.  Commenting at the time of the death of film critic Roger Ebert, Michael Wosnick, wrote: “The use of the word, “lose” is like a zero-sum game to me: if someone or something loses then that means that someone or something else wins. You can’t have a loser if you don’t have a winner. We should not so easily give cancer that kind of power over us.”

If someone has lifelong hypertension and dies from a heart attack, do we say in the obituary that they lost their battle with high blood pressure? Then why do so many deaths from cancer get reported this way? While it’s not quite “blaming the victim”, it does have an implicit element of somehow placing the ultimate responsibility for having died in the hands of the deceased.

When words blame

Oncologist, Dr Don Dizon, tells a story about taking care of a young patient with ovarian cancer during his first year as an attending physician at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The patient had just relapsed from first-line treatment and in his discussion with her about the next steps, Dr. Dizon explains that, “despite the failure of first-line treatment, there are many more options for you.”

The doctor was stunned by the patient’s tearful reaction to his words: “You make it sound like this was my fault, like I did something wrong!” she said. “I’m sorry I failed chemotherapy, if that’s what you think, and I’m sorry I disappointed you.”

It’s a lesson Dr. Dizon has never forgotten, as he describes in his own words: “It was never my intention to place ‘blame’ on something so devastating as a cancer recurrence, and I certainly did not mean to imply that she had failed. These many years later, I still consider this encounter a watershed moment in my career as an oncologist.”

The “battle with cancer” may be “only a metaphor” but it stands for a quite destructive attitude that, to the extent it influences doctors as well, distorts the treatment of cancer too.  In a JAMA Oncology article, the authors discuss how “the continuous urge to win the battle extends to oncologists, who actively treat patients for too long. The fact is that 8% of patients receive chemotherapy within 2 weeks of dying of cancer, and 62% within 2 months. Late chemotherapy is associated with decreased use of hospice, greater use of emergency interventions (including resuscitation), and increased risk of dying in an intensive care unit vs at home. This all clearly reflects our society’s need to battle until the end.”

Embracing a fighting spirit can work for some patients

This isn’t to deny that some cancer patients embrace a fighting spirit as a way that helps them feel more in control.  Cancer survivor, nurse and educator, Beth Thompson describes how “identifying as a shorn ‘warrior’ psyched me up for and pushed me through treatment.”  Sara Turle, a 9-year survivor of cancer, also found resonance in the metaphor. “For me I was never battling cancer: it’s a disease, but I was definitely battling how I managed diagnosis and particularly getting through the side effects of treatments,” she explains. “It helped me to look at each stage and at times each day and even hour, at worst points, with a view of getting through, surviving and celebrating with just a simple acknowledgement. It truly helped me feeling that achievement and it helped with knowing that I was going to have to face it again.”

Professor Elena Semino and her colleagues have been studying the use of metaphors in the way we talk about cancer since 2012. As part of their research they have analysed 1.5 million words taken from interviews and online forum discussions involving cancer patients, family carers and health professionals. The team found that the type of metaphors people chose to use when describing their cancer reflected and affected how they viewed and experienced their illness. “For some patients, some of the time, the idea of being engaged in a fight is motivating,” explained Sermino. “Some people say with pride that “I’m such a fighter”, and they find a sense of meaning and purpose and identity in that. The study showed that we are all different, and different metaphors work for different people, and at different times.”

I agree. I’m not criticizing individuals who draw strength from calling themselves fighters.  Everyone is entitled to use whatever language they want to describe their own experiences. As Sara says, “My belief is that the right language is what is right for the individual person and I would hate to think that people who do find this language helps, feel that they can’t openly use for fear of what others may think. Whatever language gets you through is the right language for me. I am very mindful of when speaking to people now to be sensitive to the language they are happy with and these discussions of differing views have helped me with this.”  Beth agrees and asks, “Can we educate while still leaving room for what works for the individual experience of cancer?”

Wrapping Up

If you believe, as many patients do, that the words we use to describe cancer matter, how then should we begin to conceptualize it? Stephanie Sliekers asks a similar question in this HuffPost article, “If cancer really is the ‘enemy’, what’s the best way to beat it?” Her answer? “By studying and understanding it as it is, a disease borne out of human blood, tissues and genes, a disease that lives within us whether it is treatable or fatal.”

Perhaps, rather than speaking of cancer in militaristic terms, it’s better to communicate that we are “living with cancer” for as long and as well as we can. And when a person dies, let’s not say he/she has lost anything, but rather that person has died after living with cancer for a period of time.

Words matter a great deal in life, death, and everything that comes in-between. To quote Dr Dizon “Words are powerful and despite our best intentions, can hurt—this is true in life, and it is true in oncology.”

Patient Participation in Research: Towards Meaningful Engagement

“If patient engagement were a drug, it would be the blockbuster drug of the century and malpractice not to use it.” Leonard Kish

Have you detected a recent upsurge in activities concerning patient engagement in health research? If you are involved in patient advocacy, you may be increasingly aware of discussions around the importance of patient-oriented research. However, despite strong acknowledgement of the benefits of engaging patients in research, gaps still exist between the theory and the practice of patient engagement.  This article explores the ways in which patient participation in health research can move beyond rhetoric towards activity which results in research better aligned with meaningful patient outcomes.

What is patient participation in research?

You may notice that there is a wide range of terms used to describe patient oriented research.  Depending on which country you live in, you’ll hear a variety of terms from “patient/public/service/user/engagement,” to “participatory research,” “patient and public involvement,” and “co‐researcher/ co‐investigator.”

While there may not be a consensus for the terms used to describe patient oriented research, there is one fundamental concept that sets it apart from traditional research. In the past, patient participation was limited to involvement as research subjects. Research was undertaken by researchers to and for patients.  When patients are actively engaged, research is undertaken jointly with them.   This is an important step in ensuring that the real-life experiences of patients are considered in determining research priorities that are most relevant to patients themselves.

Why should you engage in health research?

There are many reasons why you may want to get involved in health research. Perhaps you wish to understand the research behind your disease and hope that involvement will give you direct access to knowledge of new treatments. You may also want to find a way to put your personal knowledge of the healthcare system and your experience of your condition to good use. In this way you can play a part in improving care for other patients. Those patients who take an active part in aligning research with real-world needs of patients and caregivers report feelings of increased self-confidence. By developing a stronger advocacy voice they feel more empowered, respected, and valued.

By engaging in research you can broaden the agenda beyond that set by health professionals and researchers. As someone who directly experiences illness and medical care, you can bring the perspective of what it is like to live with a disease. You’re uniquely positioned to contribute to research by sharing important ideas about what research would be most beneficial to you and other patients like you.  

How can you get engaged in research?

Patients can be engaged across a spectrum of research from planning and priority setting to disseminating findings. The deeper the degree of participation, the greater the influence you will have in decision making.    Becoming involved at the outset of the research project means you can identify relevant research questions and meaningful study endpoints.

Historically, researchers have framed questions which are not particularly relevant to patients. As an example, the research priorities of patients with osteoarthritis of the knee and the clinicians looking after them, were shown in a study to favor more rigorous evaluation of physiotherapy and surgery, and assessment of educational and coping strategies. Only 9% of patients wanted more research on drugs, yet over 80% of randomized controlled trials in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee were drug evaluations.


Research Stage 

Level of Involvement

Identifying/Prioritizing Determining the research topic, alignment of priorities, and identification of research questions.
Design Ensuring that the research methods are sensitive and appropriate for study participants.
Management Recruiting study participants; conducting interviews; being an active member of a steering group.
Data Analysis Highlighting findings that are most relevant to patients; summarizing the research for lay audiences.
Dissemination Improving access to patients via peer and social networks and accessing difficult-to-reach patient groups.

How do you know if participating in research is right for you?

It’s important to understand the reasons why you are being asked to take part in a research project. You and the research team should have a shared and clear understanding of what you are being invited to do.  Sometimes researchers look for patient participation to fulfill a funding requirement, without being clear about the role that patients will actually take.  Without a clear understanding of what meaningful engagement looks like, researchers may end up including patients solely to tick a funding box. Taking part in this kind of tokenistic research can be extremely unsatisfying and leave you feeling undervalued and frustrated.

Asking the following questions of the research team can be useful to help you decide whether or not a particular research project is right for you.

  • What level of involvement do you want from patients?
  • What change can happen as a result of this engagement activity?
  • What is my role? (Ask for a written “job” description.)
  • Are there any particular skills you are looking for? Do I need to understand research methodology, acronyms, and technical language? Will training be provided if I’m not familiar with research processes?
  • What is the time commitment you will expect of me? (You should take into consideration your other work or family commitments. For instance will you need to take time off work to attend meetings?)
  • Where will meetings be held? Are there accessibility issues you need to be aware of?
  • What preparatory work will be required to carry out in advance of meetings (e.g. pre-reading?)
  • How will I know if my input is incorporated in the research findings?
  • If my feedback isn’t used, will you share the reasons why not?
  • Are you paying patients? (Reimbursements for out‐of‐pocket expenses should be viewed as an absolute minimum.)

If you’re not satisfied with the answers you receive to these questions, then you should consider whether the project is something worth giving up your time for. Participating in research is time-consuming and sometimes it can be emotionally and physically draining. Consider too at what point you are in your own health journey. Will participation in research place an added burden on your treatment or recovery?  In making the decision to become involved in research, you should always balance your own health needs with the desire to be supportive of research and the research process. Heed the advice of pediatric neurodisability advocate, Jennifer Johannesen “if there is insufficient effort to justify and substantiate what is being asked of you, or it’s unclear as to why you’re involved, you can decline.”

Meaningful engagement is about shifting the traditional paradigm of patients as passive participants, to one in which we are fully involved as active contributors who have a sense of ownership in outcomes. You need to be able to trust that you are being genuinely heard and your concerns are being acted upon. Look for projects that champion diversity, reciprocal trust, and strong sustainable relationships. Ask for no less than this – research that respects your unique perspective and expertise and values your contribution as an equal partner in the research process.

Patient Advocacy: Ten Tips to Develop a Stronger Social Media Presence

Social media is a powerful addition to our patient advocacy toolbox. We can use it to raise awareness of our cause, build a community of supporters, promote our key messages and highlight our patient advocacy activities. To help you strengthen your online presence and create more visibility for your cause, I’ve put together this list of ten actionable tips you can put into practice right away.

1. Optimize Your Social Profiles

Your social media profile should be considered a key element of your advocacy brand. What will people’s first impression be of you when they encounter your online profile? What might make them decide to follow you?   Review each of your existing social profiles with the following points in mind.

  • Is it time to use a more professional picture to represent yourself online? Upload an image that is clear and easy to see, like a head and shoulders shot, or your organization’s logo. Make sure to upload images with the correct dimensions for each social platform (check out this guide to social media image sizes).
  • You have an opportunity to personalize your profile on Facebook and Twitter by uploading a custom header image. Use this opportunity to bring more authenticity to your account, for example you might use a picture of yourself holding a sign with a hard-hitting message. Or perhaps there’s a project or campaign you are currently working on. If so, include an image to represent this in the header space.

Take Action: Complete all sections of your profile to convey a stronger message and identity.  Schedule a review date every few months to check your information is still current.

2. Focus on Being the Expert One Platform at a Time

Each year brings shiny new social media tools and new features for existing tools. It’s tempting to jump on board the latest social media platform with the aim of being everywhere at once; but rather than spreading yourself too thinly, focus on mastering one or two platforms really well before moving on to the next one.

Take Action: Look back on the past six months and ask yourself which social media platform worked best for you? Which gave you the most engagement? And which platform had the least engagement? Consider focussing your efforts on the high-performing platform and becoming known as the go-to expert on this channel before adding anything new to your social media mix.

3. Schedule Your Social Media Posts

The internet is global and if you want your message to reach further than your own backyard, you need to hit multiple time zones. Tweets have the shortest lifespan of any social media post. Even though the latest Twitter algorithm means that posts are no longer displayed chronologically, Twitter is fast-paced, and messages get buried quickly. To counter this, you need to share your post multiple times on Twitter to increase visibility. Scheduling tweets allows you to reach followers when they are most likely to be online (even if you aren’t there at the same time) and allows you to maintain a regular and consistent online presence.

Take Action: Use a scheduling tool like Buffer or Hootsuite to schedule your updates to reach more people, more often. Don’t just post the same update every time. Vary your updates by changing around the headline, highlighting a statistic or quotation or adding different images.

4. Curate Content

The ability to curate credible content to share with our communities is a key skill for patient advocates. Hereditary cancer advocate, Amy Byer Shainman believes “patient advocates not only have a responsibility to curate trusted content but that it is an imperative if you are even going to be calling yourself a patient advocate.”

Content curation is defined as the process of gathering information relevant to a particular topic or area of interest.  While this definition sounds simple, there’s a world of difference between simply gathering information and being an effective curator. A good curator knows how to find, aggregate, and synthesize reliable information, putting it into context for their communities and sharing it in a format that is easy to access and understand.

Take Action:  Set up Google Alerts for the healthcare topics of interest to you.  Google Scholar is also useful as it indexes most peer-reviewed online journals of Europe and America’s largest scholarly publishers.

5. Create Visual Impact

You’ve surely heard this before, but it’s worth reiterating: images matter — a lot. In an age when people’s attention span averages 8 seconds (that’s shorter than a goldfish!) visuals are memorable and effective because they help people process, understand, and retain more information more quickly.

Visual content is 40x more likely to get shared on social media than other types of content according to research by Buffer. Furthermore, people connect more emotionally with images than text, and in an increasingly crowded digital landscape images can break through the online content clutter. The type of visual assets you can create include images, videos, infographics, quotes and GIFs.

Take Action: Add an image to all your online posts — even those that are text-based. Create a strong visual identity and maintain consistency across all your images by sticking to the same colours, fonts, and layouts. Read How To Create Professional GraphicsEven If Youre Not a Graphic Designer for more tips.

6. Use Relevant Hashtags

Hashtags are a powerful way to increase your visibility on social media. According to Twitter’s own research tweets with hashtags show a 100 percent increase in engagement (clicks, retweets, likes and replies).  Jo Taylor, a moderator of the UK-based breast cancer Twitter chat #BCCWW, explains that “finding disease hashtags opens up connections. If you connect with others you will be able to meet others easily online and you will build and learn from there.”

Take Action: Visit symplur.com to find the relevant hashtags for your disease area. If you can’t find a hashtag related to your topic, you might consider creating your own. For more information on using hashtags strategically read Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Hashtags in Healthcare…But Were Afraid To Ask!

7. Live-Report Conferences and Events

Reporting live from an event is a way of engaging your followers by sending updates about an event as it occurs. It allows you to expand the reach of in-person events to provide valuable insights to those who are unable to attend in person. It’s also a way to increase your visibility as an attendee and enhance your credibility.

Live reporting tools include live-streaming using Facebook LiveInstagram Live, and Periscope (Twitter’s live-streaming app).  You can also share posts to your Facebook page and share photos and video clips via Instagram and Snapchat during the event.

Take Action: Read The Advocate’s Guide to Reporting Live from Conferences and Events for more tips on live-reporting.

8. Take Part In Twitter Chats

Twitter thrives on its community and the more you connect with other users the more quickly you will grow your own following. Joining a Twitter chat is a super way to connect and engage. When you attend a Twitter chat regularly, people will get to know you and in this way, you can quickly develop and grow your own network of supporters.  If you’re not familiar with them, a Twitter Chat is a public Twitter conversation around one unique hashtag. This hashtag allows you to follow the discussion and participate in it.

Twitter chats can be one-off events, but more usually are recurring weekly chats to regularly connect people, for example #PatientChat held every other Friday at 10:00 am Pacific/1:00 pm Eastern. The chat will be hosted and the host will ask questions along the way to stimulate discussion and sharing of ideas. There are chats for most disease topics and a full list can be found by searching the database of the Healthcare Hashtag Project. This is also a useful resource to find Twitter users to follow. In addition you will find past transcripts of chats on the website so you can familiarize yourself with the chat and its norms before taking part.

Take Action: There are chats for most disease topics and a full list can be found by searching the database of the Healthcare Hashtag Project. And “if you can’t find a tweet chat you enjoy,” recommends patient advocate, Annette McKinnon, “start a new one, register it @symplur and build a new community.”

9. Create a YouTube Channel

People engage with video more than any other form of content (written, audio, images, etc.). YouTube with more than 1.8 billion monthly active users remains the online video leader. 4 million YouTube videos are viewed every day, and the average session duration of 9 minutes and 28 seconds. That’s more than many other social networks.

Take Action: While producing your own video may seem daunting, video creation has never been more accessible through smartphones.  You can also create simple videos for your channel using free tools such as Adobe Spark and Lumen5 (see my YouTube channel for examples of Lumen5 videos).

10. Maintain a Consistent Content Creation and Promotion Schedule

Social media is an ongoing commitment. You need to post consistently to stay in front of your audience’s eyes and keep growing.  One key to maintaining a steady stream of quality content is to re-purpose what you already have. Check your blog’s analytics (or Twitter and Facebook analytics) to see the most popular posts you’ve written or shared.  Can you expand on these to include new research or thinking? Perhaps the content can be turned into an infographic or a slide-deck.

Take Action: Set aside one day each month to map out upcoming cause awareness days. Then use a simple excel spread sheet to create a calendar for social media postings. Include relevant hashtags and images.  A content calendar helps you maintain a consistent content production schedule, enabling you to plan for seasonal content, and annual campaigns.

Social media is an ever-evolving and fast-moving field, and with so much to learn and do, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. You don’t have to implement all these tips at once. Try adding one new strategy to your social media plan each week and measure its impact at the end of each month. This way you will know which of these strategies are moving you closer to a stronger online presence.

Here’s to your social media success!

 

Tips on Finding a New Job or Changing Career after Cancer Treatment

In this three-part series, I’ve been exploring different aspects of returning (or continuing) to work after a cancer diagnosis. So far I’ve tackled issues from preparing to return to work and handling your workload, to dealing with problems such as fatigue and concentration.  In the final part of this series, I’m turning my attention to finding a new job after cancer treatment has ended.

There are a number of reasons why you might be looking for a new job after cancer. Perhaps you crave a fresh start, somewhere where you’re not known as the co-worker with cancer.  Or perhaps you need more work flexibility – such as the option to work part-time –  but your current employer isn’t in a position to make the adjustments you need. Or maybe you want to change career, switching direction towards something more meaningful and fulfilling.

Whether you’re looking for a new job or considering a new career direction, this month’s article has plenty of practical advice to help you.

1. Get Clarity on Your Direction

A good place to start is by getting clear on your new goals, financial needs and current skills and abilities. Grab a pen and some paper and take some time thinking about your responses to the following questions.

  • What are my core skills and strengths? Am I using them to their fullest in my current (or previous) job? Which skills and interests from my previous jobs will transfer over to a new position or field?
  • What new insights or skills have I gained through cancer? Do I want to be able to use these in my job?
  • Have my career goals changed? Do I want to work in a similar job but with more work-life balance? Or do I want to try something new?
  • Do I have the required skills for a new career interest? Will I need to retrain? How will this impact me financially?
  • Do I have the stamina to take on something new? Do I need to consider the impact of any long term side-effects from treatment on my ability to work?

2. Update Your Resume

The next step is to get your resume in order.  If it’s been several years since you last applied for a job, you may need to take into account that resume writing has changed quite a bit in the past decade. For example, the chronologically based resume (listing job titles, companies and dates in chronological order), while still popular, is giving way to a more dynamic skills-based one.   This is good news if you want to work around a gap in your employment history.  For a skills-based resume, you will create a relevant summary of your skills, career accomplishments and career goals and position this directly below your name.  You should aim to provide an example of an area of accomplishment related to each specific skill.

Pro Tip: When it comes to including employment dates, don’t include months in the dates, only years. This helps narrow the work gaps.

3. Develop Your Network

Make a list of everyone you know who is currently working in your industry or the industry you’d like to be in. Take a strategic approach by setting achievable goals for the number of people you want to connect with every week. Reach out to them and tell them about your plans to find new work or change career direction. Ask them to keep you updated of any new job openings and leads. Hiring managers are more willing to consider you for an interview after a personal recommendation.

Pro Tip: When it comes to building your professional network there’s no better tool than LinkedIn. LinkedIn multiplies your existing personal and professional networks by making the connections of your connections available to you at the touch of a digital finger.

4. Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile

Your LinkedIn profile is the cornerstone of your professional brand online. While you may already have a profile on the platform, is it optimized for a job search?   LinkedIn profile optimization simply means that your LinkedIn profile is fully updated to maximize your visibility on the platform. Everything you do on LinkedIn begins with your profile. Yet many professionals still treat their LinkedIn profile as little more than a place to park their resume and promptly forget about it.

You won’t be effective at LinkedIn networking if your profile doesn’t entice people to get to know you. Here are some quick tips to optimize your profile (for a step-by-step guide with more detailed information, click here).

  • Make your first visual impression count by displaying a high-quality professional photo.
  • Adding a background image directly behind your photo will help brand your profile. Think of it as your professional billboard.
  • Create a strong professional headline. This is a critical step because your professional headline is not just highly visible on LinkedIn, it’s also searchable by Google.
  • Nurture your LinkedIn relationships through regular engagement. This is not about making large numbers of contacts; rather, it’s about making meaningful connections.
  • Join industry relevant groups. Job openings are often posted by recruiters in industry groups. You will find groups by clicking on Interests > Groups from your profile or searching keywords to identify groups with interests similar to yours.
  • Become an active and engaged user. When you log into LinkedIn, notice each time who shows up in your home feed. Most likely you will see the same few people. These individuals are getting more visibility because they are more active. If you make the commitment to become more active in your network, you will increase your visibility
  • Be strategic about when you’re active on LinkedIn. As a general rule, LinkedIn users are most active right before and after work (7–8 am and 5– 6 pm), as well as during lunch time.

Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid to use social media to your advantage: if you know the hiring manager’s or recruiter’s name, add them on LinkedIn.

5. Mind Your Digital Footprint

Employers are increasingly carrying out social media checks on prospective employees. Anticipate this by googling yourself to see what turns up.  Here is where a professional profile on LinkedIn can be enormously helpful to present the best impression. Because of the way Google’s search algorithm works, an optimized LinkedIn profile will frequently show up in the first few places of a Google search for your name.

While LinkedIn is an asset, other forms of social media may harm your search for a new job. Sharing personal information about your treatment through a blog, Instagram, Twitter or Facebook is publicly searchable by potential employers.  Many of us turn to social media sites and blogs to keep our families and friends updated on our progress and to seek support during cancer treatment.  But when your focus returns to work, you may not want your employer or prospective employer to know of your cancer history.

Pro Tip: Take some proactive steps to protect your privacy online.  Set privacy settings on things like Facebook so that nothing can be seen by people who aren’t “friends” (including pages you are a fan of – an often forgotten detail). Delete what you can from your postings on Facebook and other media that talk about your cancer. Set up a Google Alert to monitor mentions for your name.

6. Handling the Job Interview

A job interview is stressful at the best of times, but when you’re anxious about handling the question of cancer, it’s doubly so. Sixty-one percent of cancer survivors looking for a job said they fear disclosing their cancer diagnosis will negatively affect their chances of getting hired.

Rehearsing what you plan on saying ahead of time greatly reduces any anxiety you may feel. The more prepared you are before the interview, the more relaxed and at ease you will appear during the interview. Draw up a list of potential questions and practice your answers.  Accentuate the positive. For now, put aside your worries about how to explain the gap in your resume and spend some time focusing on why you are the right person for the specific job that you are applying for. List at least ten great qualities and skills you have and ask friends and family to help you brainstorm more. Try to find a willing friend or family member who will role-play the interview with you.

Remember you don’t have to disclose your cancer history either on your application or during an interview. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from asking job applicants about a disability (this includes cancer) before offering them the job.  However, you may decide you want to be upfront about a work-related absence. If this is the case, you can deal with it by briefly explaining you had some time off work for a health (or family) related reason, but that’s behind you and you’re now looking forward to re-joining the workforce. Keep it simple, stick to one sentence or two and don’t be tempted to digress. Then switch the direction of the questioning back to your skills and qualifications for the job.

Pro Tip: Do your research before going into an interview. By showing off your knowledge of both the company and the industry, you are conveying to the interviewer that you are still up-to-date even if you have been absent from work for a period of time.

7. Considering a Career Change

Cancer changes your outlook on life.  Alongside an increased awareness of the preciousness of time, you may also have decreased tolerance for spending time on meaningless tasks. Many cancer survivors, my own self included, have felt a calling for more meaningful work after their treatment has ended.    I’d like to finish this back-to-work series by sharing the stories of three such people who have used their cancer experience as a way to help others and forged new careers in the process.

Jennifer Elliott was a pre-kindergarten to elementary school age music teacher before being diagnosed with bilateral synchronous breast cancer in 2014. Since her diagnosis, her focus has shifted to patient advocacy.  “My advocacy began when I realized that my access to industry trained people, thanks to where I live and who my friends are, was impacting my care in a positive way,” said Jennifer.   “That made me angry, because we should all have equal access to quality care.  I’m now applying to graduate degree programs in public policy because, as I’m advocating for breast cancer survivors I’ve learned that all the things I’m advocating for are impacted or dictated by policy and if I want to have the broadest impact I need some policy skills and training.”

Terri Coutee was focused on a life-long dream of completing a Master’s program in teacher leadership when she received news of her second breast cancer diagnosis. “The diagnosis was the catalyst to evaluate my professional career,” explained Terri.  “I had to focus on my treatment and major surgery over a period of seven months. This gave me time to re-evaluate, research, and refocus. I learned less than 25% of women and men were not being given their options for breast reconstruction after mastectomy. As a life-long educator, I realized I could educate those affected by breast cancer and learn from my experience. A blog about my successful breast reconstruction experience led to opening a non-profit Foundation to educate a global audience through social media, attending medical conferences, and making as many personal connections as I could to assist others through their own journey. The need is endless because we haven’t found a cure for breast cancer, yet. Until we do, I will continue to educate and provide resources for the very best medical care for others faced with mastectomy.”

At the age of 51, Chris Lewis wasn’t looking for a career change. “I was working for myself and was at the peak of my earning power,” he said. “Then a poor prognosis of incurable blood cancer and my life was turned upside down. I have since had many years of complex treatment meaning I could not return to employment of any description. As my survivorship moved from months to years I needed a purpose. My body was in bad shape but I still had a business mind.”

Unhappy at the poor resources and help for people living with cancer, Chris took to the Internet to voice his displeasure, leading to him running his own successful website Chris’s Cancer Community.  “This led to me becoming a global expert speaker and writer”, said Chris. “I am self-taught in social media and an award winning writer. As a patient advocate I speak at many high profile conferences. Cancer has taken a lot from me, but has shown me a new way of life I would never have experienced. The big bonus is the incredible people I get to meet and talk to daily. It seems even at my age I have found a new career!”

 

Returning To Work During or After Cancer Treatment: Part 2

This is the second part of a three-part series which deals with common concerns on returning to work after a cancer diagnosis.

In Part 1 of this series, I shared some tips with you on how to prepare for your re-entry into the workplace. In this article we will look at practical ways to handle issues such as fatigue and concentration, managing your workload, and dealing with stress.

Let’s start with some tips on coping with fatigue as it’s probably the biggest challenge you will face, regardless of whether you are working during treatment or returning to work after treatment has ended.

Coping With Cancer-Related Fatigue

Cancer-related fatigue (CRF) is increasingly recognized as one of the most common and distressing side effects of cancer and its treatments. It has been estimated that from one quarter to nearly all cancer patients experience CRF during and after treatment.  Although things generally improves after therapy is completed, some level of fatigue may persist for months, or even years, following treatment.

Commenting on the impact of CRF on her own work, Kate Bowles, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, says, “The main advice I give is that chemo related fatigue is real and lasting. And also that your priorities change, often in very empowering ways. I am very calm in my job, because I really know now that it’s just a job.”

A lot of cancer patients don’t report fatigue to their doctors because they think that nothing can be done for it. In fact, there are things that can be done to alleviate the debilitating effects of CRF.  If left untreated, fatigue may lead to depression and profoundly diminish your quality of life, so it’s important that you speak to your doctor if fatigue is an issue for you. Before you can address CRF specifically, your doctor needs to determine if there are any underlying medical issues which may be contributing to your fatigue.

Making some adjustments to your everyday routines can also help you cope with CRF.

Here are three ways to do this.

1. Make deposits in your ‘energy bank’

You may find it helpful to think of your energy reserves as your ‘energy bank’. Whenever you do an activity you make a withdrawal. And when you rest you make a deposit. It’s important to balance withdrawals with deposits. If you keep doing too much whenever you feel like you have energy, you’ll run out completely and not have any reserves left for the things that are important.

2. Plan your day

Planning is key when you have fatigue. Write a ‘To Do’ list each evening so you can prioritize the things you need to do at work the next day.

3. Do some regular light exercise

Try to get out in the fresh air for a walk at lunchtime.  Although exercising may be the last thing you feel like doing when you’re tired, if you don’t exercise, you’re more likely to experience fatigue.

I also recommend you download a free app called Untire, which contains a program that will help you track and improve your energy levels. The app uses theories and techniques from scientifically proven cognitive behavior therapy, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, positive psychology and physical exercise interventions.

Time Management 

Managing your time at work is all about learning to work smarter, not harder.  It’s not about packing more tasks into your day, but about streamlining how you go about your work and prioritizing key tasks.

Here are seven tips to develop better time management skills.

1. Track your time and eliminate the non-essential

First things first. If you’re going to manage your time better, you need to figure out where you spend your time. Use a tool like RescueTime to track your activities for a week. This will help you determine how much you can realistically accomplish in a day, identify the time of day when you are most productive, and uncover daily timesucks, such as reading emails (unsubscribe from those e-mail lists you no longer need).  When we can clearly identify our daily time sinks and remove them, we become more focused and productive.

2. Do the most important thing first

Mark Twain once said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” The point that Twain was making is that you should take care of your biggest and most-challenging tasks first thing in the morning.

Each day, identify the one or two tasks that are the most important to complete, and get started right away on them. If a task is too big to complete in one day, divide it into smaller tasks to be spread out over several days.  When you have accomplished a task, mark it off your list with a pen. This provides a psychological boost as it gives you visual confirmation that you are getting somewhere.

3. Batch related tasks

Batching refers to the process of using blocks of time for specific repetitive tasks. Different tasks demand different types of thinking, so save yourself time and mental energy by focusing on one type of task before moving on to the next.

4. Focus on one task at a time

Finding it hard to concentrate is a common effect of having had cancer. To combat this, focus on one task at a time instead of multi-tasking.  Research tells us it can take up to 30 minutes to return your attention to whatever you were doing before an interruption. Put your phone away, close your email applications and any unnecessary browser windows on your computer. Concentrate fully on the one task you need to complete.

5. Take regular breaks

Allow yourself down-time between tasks.  Break for lunch and take additional short breaks throughout the day. Maintain your energy reserves with nutritious snack breaks. Pack nuts, fresh fruits and veggies, hummus, or low-fat cheese to take to work with you.

6. Set time limits for tasks

Give yourself a certain time by which you will complete a task. For instance, reading and answering email can consume your whole day if you let it. Instead, set a limit of one hour a day for this task and stick to it. The easiest way to do this is to assign a solid block of time to this task rather than answering email on demand.

7. Let go of perfectionism

Stop trying to be perfect. When you’re a perfectionist, nothing will ever be good enough. That means you’ll stick with a task long past the deadline. You’ll say yes to too many things and take on too much in an effort to prove to yourself, and others, that nothing has changed since your cancer diagnosis.

Sometimes you need to realize that good enough is sufficient and when you reach that point, then simply stop. This is not an excuse to do a poor job, but it is intended to give you permission to do a good job and then leave it there. Don’t waste precious energy and time polishing and perfecting something past that point.

Managing Stress

It’s normal to feel some stress on returning to work, so it makes sense to plan ahead for how to deal with stressful situations. Here are some tips to help you.

1. Identify your body’s stress response

How we experience stress is individual to each of us. Learning to tune into what happens in your body when you perceive a stressful situation is the first step in understanding your own individual stress response. Does your jaw clench? Is your breath shallow? Are your muscles tense? When you become more aware of your physical response to stress, it will help regulate the tension when it does occur.

2. Slow down and pay attention to your breathing

When stress hits, everything speeds up. Our thoughts race, our heart pounds and our breathing increases. This can make it difficult to think rationally. Consciously slow down your breathing. When we are stressed we tend to breathe more shallowly.  When you feel stressed, practice taking some slow deep abdominal breaths.  Deep abdominal breathing slows the heart down, lowers blood pressure and helps us feel calmer.

3. Come back to your senses

One of the best ways to stop getting lost in your thoughts is to come to your senses and ground yourself in the present moment. A simple exercise is to notice five things around you. Practice this periodically throughout the day, especially at those times you find yourself getting caught up in your thoughts and feelings.

  • Look around and notice five things that you can see;
  • Listen carefully and notice five things that you can hear;
  • Notice five things that you can feel in contact with your body (for example, your feet upon the floor, your back against the chair);
  • Finally, do all of the above simultaneously.

4. Take Some Exercise

Physical activity is one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce stress and anxiety – providing a natural outlet for your body when you are exposed to too much adrenaline.

Research has shown that there are many benefits to exercise. Not only does it help reduce the symptoms of fatigue, exercise encourages your body to release endorphins – often called ‘feel good hormones’. When released, endorphins can lift your mood and sense of well-being.

Go for a walk, head to the gym or find a lunch-time yoga class. Throughout the day take short breaks to stretch or do simple exercises at your desk.

Wrapping Up

Handling your re-entry to the workplace after a cancer diagnosis is all about organizing your time better, prioritizing your workload, establishing boundaries and becoming more comfortable with saying no to unreasonable demands.

Above all, it’s about making your health your top priority. Get adequate sleep, eat healthily, take some exercise and incorporate stress-management techniques into your daily routines.

I know from personal experience it isn’t always quite as straightforward as I have laid things out here. There will be many ups and downs. Deborah Bowman, a Professor of Medical Ethics, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2017, urges self-kindness and patience. “Don’t be afraid to say if it becomes unexpectedly (or expectedly!) difficult,” she says,  “be kind to yourself and allow others to be kind to you too. Accept it may be up and down rather than a straightforward trajectory. Celebrate your good moments and forgive yourself the harder moments.”


Next month in Part 3 of this Returning To Work series, we will take a look at the opportunities and challenges of finding a new job after cancer.  Until then, if you have any tips to share with readers about how you coped on returning to work, please share them in the comments below.

Returning To Work After Cancer Treatment. Part 1: Preparing the Ground

This month’s article is the first in a three-part series which deals with common concerns on returning to work after a cancer diagnosis and offers practical solutions for helping with your re-entry into the workplace.

A diagnosis of cancer is a profound disruption in our lives, leaving no area untouched. Cancer impacts our family life, our relationships, and our careers.  If you have been absent from work, the decision to return often brings with it mixed emotions.  While you may welcome a return to normality, a steady income, the company of work colleagues and a sense of identity, you may also be feeling apprehensive about how you will cope.

Particularly if you are used to identifying closely with your job, a prolonged absence from work can be difficult. Even if you continue working during treatment, you may also experience some difficulties. You may be wondering how you will cope with your workload.  Will your co-workers treat you differently? How will your boss react to you? Will your promotional opportunities be affected?

Although the majority of those who return (or continue) to work after cancer adapt well, some will encounter difficulties. In Part 1 of this series, we will take a look at some practical ways to prepare for your re-integration back into the workplace.

When Do You Know It Is Time To Return To Work?

There is no one-size fits all answer to the question of when it’s time to return to work. It will depend on the type of treatment you received, your financial situation, your physical and emotional state and other personal factors.

Only you know whether it would be better for your psychological health to be at home, away from any professional stresses, or at work, where distractions may take your mind off other things.  Chris Lewis, founder of Chris’s Cancer Community, believes that “work can be a fantastic therapy, when dealing with life’s challenges. We feel valued, and of course, can provide an income for our family.”

On the other hand, perhaps you see cancer as an opportunity to re-evaluate your career. You may find that your work priorities have changed, or you feel unable to keep up with the demands of your previous work pace. Perhaps you want a new job which will allow you more flexibility to pursue other goals or you may want to explore working in a field which is more personally fulfilling (we will look at this in more detail in Part 3).

Preparing the Ground

Doing some groundwork before you return to work should help make re-entry more manageable.  Plan in advance how you will respond to questions from co-workers, deal with your boss’s expectations, and handle your workload. Here are some tips to help you.

1. Making adjustments and accommodations to your work environment

Your employer has a duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to your workplace and working practices. What is considered a ‘reasonable adjustment’ depends on factors such as the cost and practicality of making the adjustment, which is why it’s important to discuss things as soon as possible with your employer.    Some things to discuss include the possibility (at least temporarily) of a phased or gradual return to work, job-sharing, working from home or flexi –time.

A word of caution here. It is not unusual for part-time work to turn into a full time job. Set clear boundaries about what is achievable in the hours you have agreed to work.  If you are thinking about working from home, be aware that this can be quite isolating. Will you miss the camaraderie of the office?

Breast cancer blogger @lifeafterlola suggests that “A phased return is good, combining time back at work with work from home or a day off on, say, a Wednesday to break up the fatigue. The hardest thing to cope with,” she says,  is getting back up to pace with early mornings, late finishes and travel on top of work and social adjustment.” Julia, co-founder of breast cancer Twitter chat, #BCCWW offers a practical tip to reduce the stress of traveling to work.  “If it’s possible travel outside rush hour,” she advises.

Next, think about your physical environment at work. Revisit you work-station. Does it need to be redesigned or fitted with equipment such as back support or other devices to make you more comfortable?

The size of your company may affect how much accommodation to your needs you can expect to get. Larger organizations are in a better position to offer you more flexibility and support, but most employers will be understanding if you communicate your needs clearly with them. It may be helpful to have a letter from your doctor to document any accommodations required.

2. Getting up to speed with changes at work

Depending on how long you have been absent, you may find things have moved on since you were away from work. If this is the case, take some time to get up to speed with new systems and developments. This may include attending formal training sessions in advance of getting back to work, or having a colleague take some time to get you caught up again.  Julia explains how she struggled initially with her job which “involved reading lots of draft legislation, policy papers, etc.” and after speaking to her boss, did some refresher training to get up to speed again.

3. Updating your co-workers on your plans to return to work

Most of us have built up a carefully constructed professional persona and we work hard at protecting it by keeping a fairly strict line of demarcation between our personal and professional lives. It can be unsettling to find these lines have become blurred by your illness.

Not everyone knows the right thing to say or how best to offer support. Connecting with colleagues before you return to work can, in the words of Julia, “get a little of the first day nerves out of the way, especially  if you are feeling anxious about their reactions to your changed appearance.”

In general people will take their cue from you, so take the lead with colleagues. Talk them on the phone, send an email or arrange to meet for coffee or lunch. Reassure them that you are doing ok and that you still want to be a valued member of the team.  Decide in advance how much you are comfortable sharing.  If you are a naturally open person, then you can talk frankly with your work colleagues, letting them know what they can do to help you ease back into work. If you are more private, just tell everyone that you appreciate their asking, you are doing ok now and you are looking forward to getting back to normal.

4. Communicating with your manager

Most managers and bosses will support your transition back to work, but they may be unsure of how best to handle this. As Kate Bowles points out in this post: “The particular challenge of having oncology patients (which is what we still are) as staff under your management, as colleagues and as workplace friends, leaves everyone falling back on adhoc interpersonal skills.”

It can be difficult for managers and colleagues to know how to strike the right balance between giving you extra support and allowing you to carry on as normal.  As Julia points out “Your line manager isn’t a mind reader. Be honest about what you can/can’t do, offer solutions, about managing work and don’t just leave it to them.  It should be a two way process.”

For your part, you may have concerns about being perceived as a productive member of the team.  Open and honest communication is key here. Check in regularly with updates on how you are coping and to review your productivity.   If there are things that you are not ready to undertake initially, then be honest, and ask for help if you need it. Set clear boundaries that will allow you to say no to certain types of requests, such as staying late for non-essential projects.    “Learn to say I can’t ….YET,” advises Siobhan Freeney, founder of Being Dense, an organization which raises awareness of Breast Density and its associated links to breast cancer and screening.

A note on work discrimination. Legally, your cancer history can’t be used against you in the workplace. But it can be difficult to determine this, because discrimination can be subtle.   Know your rights. Look into whether you are protected by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act or your state’s Fair Employment Law.

5. Book a counseling session

If you are worried about how you will cope on your return to work, consider booking some sessions with a counsellor or cognitive behavioral therapist to build up your confidence and coping skills.  Some employers have an employee assistance program in place which allows you to speak in confidence to a trained professional about your concerns. Ask if this is available in your company.

Learning some stress management techniques in advance of your return will also help you cope better (we’ll look at this in more detail in Part 2).

6. Stock your freezer

When we’re tired, we tend to gravitate towards processed food which depletes our energy reserves further. Siobhan suggests you “stock up handy home cooked freezer meals in advance of returning to work to avoid being tempted to skip dinner when over-tired.”

The key to managing the stress of working after a cancer diagnosis is to prepare as much in advance of your return to the work place. Be prepared to be flexible in your planning approach. Cancer recovery is an ongoing process. There will be many ups and downs.  You may have to deal with late side-effects of treatment or side-effects related to medication. Be ready to adjust your work practices if and when you need to.

Next month, I will share more tips and practical advice on handling your work load, managing your time and dealing with issues such as fatigue and concentration once you return to work. Until then, if you have any tips to share with readers about how you prepared your own return to work, please share them in the comments below.

Beyond Pink: The Other Side of Breast Cancer Awareness and Lessons We’ve Learned From Each Other

It’s October and the pink frenzy is in full force.  Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) is impossible to miss given the pink ribbon avalanche that arrives each Fall.  While there is no denying that BCAM has played a significant role over the past two decades in raising public awareness of breast cancer, there is  nevertheless growing criticism of its off-balance approach to awareness-raising, with many key messages becoming lost in a sea of “pink-washing.”  Interestingly, some studies have even found that pink branding may actually lead the public to take breast cancer less seriously.

“The biggest issue I have with Breast Cancer Awareness month is that it’s not even really awareness,” writes Elizabeth McKenzie, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. “Awareness is mindfulness of all aspects of breast cancer, which to a certain respect, is different for all of us, based on medical differences in disease processes, treatment access, and personal, social-emotional and cognitive processes.”

Much of the criticism centers on breast cancer campaigns which over-sexualise the disease, equating breasts with womanhood and femininity. Rod Ritchie, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, points out that “October is a bad time for male breast cancer survivors because the trivialisation and sexualisation of the disease by the pink charities reinforces public awareness that breast cancer is gender specific. Since there’s little attempt to educate men that they need to be aware of symptoms too, we are diagnosed later and have a poorer prognosis. So, how about adding some blue to the pink, encouraging research on us, and screening those with a genetic propensity?”

Over a decade ago on an October morning, I was diagnosed with breast cancer; a double reminder each year of the role this disease has played in my own life.   Looking back, I now see that my view of breast cancer was one-dimensional. Standing today on this other side of cancer I see a broader picture, a richer landscape of many shades beyond pink. This post is intended to provide a truer picture of the lives of breast cancer patients in its many varied hues.  Wherever you are in your experience, whether you are caring for a loved one, recently diagnosed, finished treatment, or living with a recurrence or metastatic cancer, I hope this post will speak to you.

Lessons We’ve Learned From Each Other

Some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about breast cancer have come, not from my doctors, but from fellow patients. My doctors didn’t tell me about the effect of chemotherapy on my future fertility. I didn’t learn that treatment could damage my heart. And I finished treatment with no clue about late treatment side-effects or the risk of a cancer recurrence.

While valuing her oncologist’s expertise, Catherine Foy, who blogs at My Triple Negative Life, acknowledges that “within the online breast cancer community there will be someone awake somewhere in the world that can provide support and advice. For example, based on someone I followed I got my Vitamin D level checked which was very low and I am now on supplements. Other examples include creating awareness of late treatment side effects and reducing the feelings of isolation that some may experience.”

Liz O’Riordan, a breast surgeon diagnosed with recurrent breast cancer, and co-author of The Complete Guide to Breast Cancer, also refers to the feelings of isolation she experienced during her treatment. “I felt incredibly alone during my breast cancer treatment. I didn’t meet another patient at any of my chemo or radiotherapy sessions. All my advice was from amazing people on Twitter,” she says.  Liz offers this advice to patients undergoing chemotherapy:  “The two best tips I was given to reduce the side effects of chemo were: (1) Drink. Lots. Even when it taste disgusting. Ideally 3 litres a day. Try flavoured water or cordial. Carry a bottle everywhere you go. (2) Exercise. Walk for 30 minutes every day. You’ll hate me for making you. Some days you may have to stop and spit and pant and retch. But do it. You will feel better for it. And they were right. I did feel better.”

Barbara Jacoby of Let Life Happen agrees that we can learn valuable coping lessons from each other. “Whether it is a question of side effects that one is experiencing from a prescribed medication, or questions regarding treatment options or experiences or procedures, if you query a patient support or advocacy group, you are likely to find more answers and information from those who have had actual personal experiences with these issues. There is no doctor or group of medical professionals that has all of the information about real patient experiences and outcomes like any group of actual patients who have dealt with just about anything and everything imaginable on every level,” she says.

Both Catherine and Barbara believe that the information you get online should be shared and discussed with your doctors as the basis of shared decision making (the conversation that happens between a patient and clinician to reach a healthcare choice together).  “I value my oncologist’s advice and experience,” says Catherine, “and would usually discuss with him any new developments that I may have encountered through the various platforms on social media.”

Terri Coutee, a two-time breast cancer survivor, and founder of DiepCFoundation, a non-profit organization providing information on options for breast reconstruction after mastectomy, also embraces the concept of shared decision making and wants others to experience it too.  “I have had chemotherapy, radiation, two lumpectomies, a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction using my own tissue,” she says. ”Each of these occurrences was fraught with difficult decisions and hours of research to optimize my own health care plan. I left offices of various health care providers with armfuls of brochures and information to sort through and organize.”

Terri encourages patients to download the Breast Advocate App, a new tool to aid the shared decision making process.  The app was developed by plastic surgeon Dr Minas Chrysopoulo, whose patient population is primarily those affected by breast cancer or at high risk of developing breast cancer. “Shared decision making is an extremely powerful approach to deciding our treatment plans. Simply put, it empowers us and helps us advocate for ourselves,” explains Terri.  “As patients, we owe it to ourselves to embrace everyday conversations with our health care teams,” she says. “The information on the Breast Advocate app is informative, intuitive, and specific to your individual diagnosis or situation. There are treatment options with evidence-based articles to discuss with your healthcare team. It even features a community section. I encourage you to check out the wealth of shared decision-making information and download the Breast Advocate app to your phone.”

Siobhan Freeney, founder of Being Dense, an organization which raises awareness of Breast Density and its associated links to breast cancer and screening, was completely unaware of the issue until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “40% of women have Dense Breasts,” she explains. “A Mammogram is the only way to determine and measure Breast Density.  In Dense Breasts the reliability of screening mammograms can be reduced by as much as 50%.”   When you have a Mammogram, the radiologist reading it can tell if you have Dense Breasts.  Siobhan recommends you should ask for a copy of your radiology Mammogram report and ask if your breasts are dense. “If you have Dense Breasts you need to know and you should ask your Doctor/Radiologist about more personalised screening such as Breast Ultrasound or MRI,” she advises.

Metastatic Breast Cancer: The Other Side of BCAM

Learning about metastatic breast cancer (MBC; also called stage 4, secondary, or advanced breast cancer) from online blogs and social media networks was revelatory for me. MBC is breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast — to the bones, liver, brain, or another organ. Even if the cancer is found in another organ, it’s still referred to as breast cancer. Like Beth Gainer, who says, she learned “that anyone who’s been diagnosed with breast cancer is at risk,” I too have found, in Beth’s words, “what the metastatic breast cancer community has had to say has been a real eye-opener.”

MBC has been referred to as a story half-told, the other side of BCAM we don’t hear enough about. As Catherine points out, “For me, breast cancer awareness month is for those who are not yet diagnosed or those newly diagnosed. The pink scene looks to future research and provides good information for those starting or in the midst of treatment. There is less focus on those of us living or dying with breast cancer.”

Nancy Stordahl is unequivocal in her criticism of the failure each October to adequately raise awareness of MBC. “Despite all the pink, all the races, all the pink ribbons, most people still know little or nothing about metastatic breast cancer,” she writes. “No wonder so many with metastatic breast cancer feel left out, isolated, alone and yes, even erased.”

Joanne Taylor, a metastatic breast cancer patient and advocate, is pushing for more information and awareness of MBC.  She created this infographic to show the red flag symptoms of advanced breast cancer.

While metastatic breast cancer is terminal and cannot be cured, because of improved treatments more women are living longer than ever with it. Even so, many misconceptions and lack of information about this diagnosis persist.    “A stranger called Elizabeth Richards contacted me and like many other women she knew very little about MBC, yet the more she found out, the more angry and amazed she became that the illness was side-lined,” says Joanne. “Elizabeth’s view was that as long as metastatic cancer wasn’t mainstream people would not be aware of the limited treatment options available to them. If they knew, they’d demand more.”

One of the biggest misconceptions is that MBC is an instant death sentence. “We thought with BCAM coming up we would do something different to show how people could live well with MBC, so we started the #busylivingwithmets campaign,” explains Joanne. “Elizabeth had the idea, it was positive, it showed what people can do if they have access to drugs and surgery. I was her inspiration! If I can do it, others can as well – if they are given the right options.”

Lessons of Resilience, Connection, and Hope

Cancer can be a lonely and isolating experience, but it doesn’t have to be. “A friend told me to accept whatever help was offered, says breast cancer survivor Connie Rosser Riddle. “It was her way of saying to quit being Superwoman, that it was okay to be in need, vulnerable. It was best to be specific when folks asked, “What can I do for you?” My answer combined what that person was best at and where I needed help, and that made a good fit for both of us.”

Audrey Birt, diagnosed with breast cancer three times, shares lessons of courage, connection and resilience on her blog.  “Cancer taught me I’m more resilient than I would have believed, it helped make me braver,” she says. “It also taught me that life cannot be controlled. This made me more able to live in the moment, and for the moment.  That’s probably not so good for my bank balance but it’s great for my life balance in a way. It taught me to reengage with writing through my blog and in a funny way it changed my life and connection to others. But it also taught me my fragility and that’s a lesson I’m still learning, one day at a time.”

Ultimately however, the lessons you learn will be unique to you. “There is not a single person, story, book, lecture or talk, which will teach us all we need to know to understand the impact of cancer on our lives. That’s what we have to figure out for ourselves when we go through our own cancer experience,” says therapist, Karin Sieger . “Having been diagnosed twice with breast cancer all I can say is try and stay open minded – to your body, the illness, treatment options. You always have choices. Don’t get stuck in fear and don’t get stuck in complacency either. Live your life to the best of your ability and stay true to who you are – with or without cancer.”

A Patient Engagement Manifesto– 6 Principles of Partnership

Recently I presented at a conference on the topic of patient engagement. I spoke to the audience, mainly comprised of digital technology start-ups, about the need to find ways to engage patients meaningfully in healthcare design.  Too many developers think they understand what patients need, but in reality, many appear to be motivated more by the cleverness of a technology than actual improvements in health outcomes.  A 2015 study from the New York University School of Medicine Department of Population Health reported that only 29% of smartphone owners using health apps say the apps have made a big impact on their health.

In thinking about this month’s blog topic, it occurred to me that it might be useful to have some guiding principles you can turn to when you are next called upon to take on a patient advisory role. Whether it’s a clinical trial, a new app, or improving hospital safety standards, patients and caregivers are increasingly becoming engaged in the design process.  However, not every organization understands how to engage patients in a purposeful way. Frequently patient participation never moves beyond a tokenistic consultation or a tick box exercise. So it’s up to us as patients and caregivers to lead the way and show the healthcare industry what meaningful engagement really looks like.

In my talk, I presented a roadmap to guide developers towards a worthwhile way to engage patients. A roadmap can be equally relevant to you as a patient advocate to guide your participation in the co-design process. Each of the following six principles reflect the value of patients as experts with rich insights and experience. Never underestimate the expertise you bring to healthcare and don’t allow others to minimize your contribution. Lived experience is equal to other forms of knowledge, evidence, and expertise.  Clinicians may be experts in disease, developers in technology, but you are the expert in your own life. You know better than anyone what it takes to live with your condition every day and which challenges you face in managing your illness. Ultimately, it is your insights that will help build a better healthcare system or solution.

6 Principles of Patient Engagement – From the Patient Perspective

1. Engage Us in Ways That Are Personally Meaningful

In an article entitled, Who Gives Us the Right to “Empower” Patients? , the authors point out that the health care system “continues to focus on engaging patients in behaviors that are deemed desirable from a mainly biomedical perspective: taking medications as prescribed, or maintaining a BMI below 25, for example. These desirable behaviors are considered universal, and it is assumed that all patients should engage in them to be optimally healthy. No space is left for individual patient goals, needs, desires, abilities, backgrounds, and other factors that make humans, and humanity, so rich and diverse.”

You cannot design health care solutions or services without taking into account patient values and preferences and the context in which we live our lives. Healthcare is complex; it’s connected to a lot of things which have nothing to do with technology. A failure to recognise the complexity of health systems and the reality of patients’ lives will continue to lead to short-sighted health initiatives.

2. Engage Us Where We Are – Not Where You Wish We Were

The most successful health applications are those that understand the real-life problems that come with living with a condition and creates solutions that meet real life needs. If an application does not solve a problem for the patient, it will not be adopted. As Amy Tenderich, founder of Diabetes Mine has said, “we will use tools that answer our questions and solve our problems. We will avoid tools that help us do what you think we should do and we won’t use tools that add to the work of caring for ourselves.”

Alex Butler, in an article entitled How To Build Successful Mobile Health Applications, wrote, “The question is not, ‘Does it solve a problem for the developer, or even the patient’s clinician?’ The real question is, ‘Does it help the patient directly? ’  If an application is in any way a hindrance, or adds any further time to the investment people must make into their healthcare, it will not be used.”

3. Engage Us Early in the Design Process

A report by Accenture revealed that just two percent of patients at hospitals are using proprietary health apps provided for them. This staggeringly low figure represents an alarming waste of resources. Accenture concluded that hospital apps are failing to engage patients by not aligning their functionality with what patients actually need. For example, only 11 percent of the apps surveyed offer at least one of three functions most desired by patients: access to medical records; the ability to book, change and cancel appointments; and the ability to request prescription refills. If those hospital app developers had worked with patients from the earliest design stages, they would be much more likely to produce an end product that patients would actually want to use.  “Co-design,” in the words of Renza Scibilia in her recent post Co-designing Co-design, does not mean showing a finished product to someone and asking for ‘feedback.’” It’s about involving patients right from the start of the design process.

Similarly, when it comes to research, it’s important that patients frame the research question. Historically, researchers have framed questions which are not particularly relevant to patients. As an example, the research priorities of patients with osteoarthritis of the knee and the clinicians looking after them, were shown in a study to favor more rigorous evaluation of physiotherapy and surgery, and assessment of educational and coping strategies. Only 9% of patients wanted more research on drugs, yet over 80% of randomized controlled trials in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee were drug evaluations.

4. Engage Us in Progress Reports

Genuine engagement is about shifting the traditional paradigm of patients as passive participants, to one in which we are fully involved as contributors who have a sense of ownership in outcomes. However, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been involved as a patient advisor on a research proposal or steering committee and received no updates on its progress.  In her brilliant post, Patient Engagement: You’re Doing it Wrong, Isabel Jordan captures the feeling of being used which many of us feel in this situation. “I traded my family’s story for what, exactly?” she asks, “I don’t know, because I was never informed. Engaging patients means keeping us informed of the results of engagement. What happened to me is harmful. It took me from my home, away from my family, put me in a place of vulnerability, and put me in a place where I wasn’t respected.”

Sue Robbins, another vocal advocate of meaningful engagement agrees, and asks the question “how is it that patients and families are used for their stories and then crudely discarded? Why has even the common courtesy of responding to emails gone?”

5. Engage Us as Equal Partners

I also believe that valuing patients as equal partners extends to paying them for their time and expertise. Not everyone agrees with this position. But if those round the table are being paid, why not the patient who is also sharing their time and expertise? As Annette McKinnon, a founding member of the Patient Advisors Network (PAN), puts it, “patients can work as hard as anyone else in the health professions, and yet they are the only ones at the table with no badge, and who are not being rewarded for their efforts?”

Tessa Richards, writing in the BMJ, puts forward arguments both for and against payment. Whether or not to pay a patient is contextual, however, she is clear that “in a consultation where other experts are being paid for their time, patients and patient advocates should be too, and this should be standardized. My time and experience are as valuable as any other person at the table who is getting paid for being there. It amazes me how often patients are just expected to be thankful to be invited.” To quote melanoma patient advocate, Kay Curtin, “This is a re-shaping in many ways of what are the defined roles in research. We are talking about the patients knowledge and experience being of equal status to that of all the other interested parties on what research grant money should be spent on.”

(Note: The Change Foundation in Canada has developed a useful decision tool to guide organizations on whether to pay “patient engagement participants.”)

6. Engage Us Beyond Our Stories

Jordan is unequivocal when she says, “stop engaging patients if you’re not actually ready to partner with them.  Stop using our stories to get money for your research and your clinical programs. Our stories belong to us. If you’re going to use me, then I’d better be making decisions with you.”

Engaging with us starts with our stories, but it shouldn’t end with our stories. We are so much more than just “the patient story.” Dig beneath the story and you will find that a patient isn’t a disease with a body attached, but a life into which a disease has intruded. Our stories are not pawns to be used and then discarded.  Respect and value them for being, in the words of David Gilbert, Patient Director @SussexMSK, precious ‘jewels from the caves of suffering.’

(Note: PAN provides some excellent tips on its website, for patients and caregivers who are asked to share their story or experiences. It includes the advice to decline to share your story if you are not emotionally ready to do so.)

Final Thoughts:  Be Prepared To Say No

In a thought-provoking and wonderfully—articulated post on the nature of meaningful patient involvement in pediatric neurodisability research, Jennifer Johannesen suggests that “if there is insufficient effort to justify and substantiate what is being asked of you, or it’s unclear as to why you’re involved, you can decline.”  I am in full agreement with Johannesen and find myself increasingly turning down requests to participate in projects these days on this basis.

I firmly believe that a shift away from the rhetoric of patient engagement towards a genuine model of partnership, needs to come from the ground-up. We as patients have to be, in Johannesen’s words the “conscience, and the critical voice.” We need to challenge patient tokenism and push for real outcomes. We need to spur organizations to design solutions that not only work technically, but make a real difference in the lives of patients.   Only then can we hope to see the true meaning of patient engagement become a reality. To steal a line from David Gilbert, “nobody is going to take us seriously if we don’t.”

 

Patient Advocacy: 15 Winning Ways to Attract More Readers to Your Blog

Have you ever had the sinking feeling of pouring your heart and soul into writing something you felt sure people will want to read, only to find this isn’t the case? That, apart from your Mom and your best friend, it feels like no one else is reading your blog?

Having your own blog is a powerful way to boost your online advocacy. Blogging shows your commitment and passion for your cause. It’s also an extremely effective way to build a community and engage more people in your cause. However, it can be disheartening to find yourself with so few readers.

If you want more than a handful of people to discover your valuable content, then this post is for you. I’m going to show you how to find more readers for your blog and promote it to a wider audience. The following tips come from my own experience as a blogger over the past nine years, along with tips from some of the smartest patient bloggers I know. I feel sure you’ll find their advice helpful as you focus on growing your own blog and building your readership.

Let’s get started right away with our first tip.

1. Optimize Your Blog’s UX

Let’s begin with how your blog looks. What is the user experience (UX) like for your readers? How easy is it to navigate around your blog? Susan Rahn gave her blog, StickIt2Stage4, a complete overhaul this year. “I updated the template to something that was more aesthetically pleasing and easier to navigate,” she told me when I asked her for her best tips on creating a better blog.

You should check also to see how easy your blog is to read on mobile devices. Does your site load quickly? A good site will load in 2 seconds. If your blog is taking longer than that, consider that around 40% of people will leave a site if it doesn’t load in 3 seconds (check your blog’s loading time with a tool like Load Impact).

2. Provide Helpful Information for Readers

While your blog may contain personal stories about your experience and that of others, it’s also a good idea to provide helpful resources for your readers. “Having pages that have helpful information such as organizations that offer conferences, support or help in some way – either financial or trips is very useful”, says Susan, “especially if you can personally recommend them.” Susan also suggests including a list of other bloggers that you read and can recommend to readers.

3. Make It Easy For Readers to Find Information on Your Site

Providing helpful information is great, but you also need to be sure that readers can find that information. By adding categories and tags to your posts, you make it easy for readers to find the information they need when they come to your blog. It also increases views on your other posts tagged with the same keywords.

4. Hook Your Readers with a Great Headline

When it comes to writing your posts, spend some time creating a great headline. Your headline is the first (perhaps only) impression you make on a prospective reader. A good headline frames your content. No matter how amazing your content is, few people are going to click through to read it if they’re not immediately captivated by your headline. The kind of headlines which perform best include:

  • “How To” – e.g. “How to Prepare for Surgery”
  • List-Style – e.g. “5 Tips for Dealing with Chemotherapy”
  • Questions – e.g. “What is Chemo-Brain?”

Try adding “power” words and phrases to your headline, (such as best, tips, empowering, challenging) to create more engagement. Download a list of 90 headline power words here.

5. Keep Readers’ Attention with Your Introduction

When you have hooked readers with an irresistible headline, you want to keep them reading. Start by asking a question, or share a striking quote, a startling statistic or a personal story. Don’t make the intro over-long or your readers will quickly lose interest. Aim for around the 100-word mark. Make every word count. Establish your rhythm and pace with those first words – you can slow the rhythm down in the body of your post later if you wish.

6. Add Visual Appeal

We live in a visual world. If content is king, then visual content is queen. And when it comes to creating visual content, don’t be tempted to reach for the nearest stock photo. These days there’s no excuse for using boring stock images. In this post I share some of my favorite places to source images for free to enhance your social media posts. A good tip is to create your own graphics with the title of your blog and/or your name and include it each time you share a link to your blog on social media. People will soon start to recognize your own unique “brand.”

7. Maintain a Consistent Posting Schedule

To create and maintain interest you need to post consistently to be able to stay in front of your audience’s eyes. Dee Sparacio, who blogs at Women of Teal, says it’s important to maintain “a pretty regular schedule so your followers are not visiting your page and seeing an old post.” Barbara Jacoby, of Let Life Happen, told me that the only thing that she has ever done to promote her blog was “to consistently write and post a weekly blog and research and post a daily ‘In the News’ article.”

Nancy Stordahl, the creator of Nancy’s Point, also advocates for consistency. “Try to post consistently if you want to develop a loyal readership,” she says. “This takes commitment (work), which means posting on a regular schedule that works for you. This might be weekly, every other week or monthly. This way readers know what to expect, plus it keeps you focused. I post weekly (usually the same day) because that’s what works for me. Consistency is key.”

One of the best ways to keep a consistent schedule is to create recurring content on your blog. Readers will then come to expect and look forward to this content each week. Examples could be creating a weekly round-up post as I do on Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer, or a Monday Motivation post.

8. Leverage Guest Blogging

Whether you invite a guest blogger to blog on your site, or you guest blog for someone else, guest blogging is one of the most effective ways to increase your blog’s traffic. Not only do you get the opportunity to build your authority and increase your visibility, you can also leverage the social following of your guest blogger when you mention them on social media. Beth Gainer, who blogs at Calling The Shots, endorses this strategy. “Offer to guest post for others’ websites,” she recommends. “I have published several guest posts, and my posts have been shared. It’s a great way of having others notice your blog.”

9. Respond to Comments

Have you ever taken the time to leave a comment on a blog and had no response? It’s disappointing and may well discourage you from commenting again. An active comments section is a sign to others that your blog is a community that cares and wants to help each other. Susan Rahn believes that this kind of interaction is important. “It lets readers know you are paying attention and you care that they are reading,” she says.

Take time to comment also on others’ blogs. “By leaving a meaningful comment on a post, you not only build community with others,” says Beth Gainer, “but others can link to and get to know your blog. I try to leave thoughtful comments on others’ blogs because I am a part of a larger community of writers, and it helps to reach out. As an indirect result of my posting comments, bloggers have visited my site and left comments.”

10. Share Your Content on Social Media

Whether it’s a Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, or an Instagram account, being active on social media is the best way to share your content with a wider audience. Dee Sparacio first set up a Twitter account with the name of her blog, @womenofteal to share her content. Then she started a Facebook page, again using her blog name. Dee advises setting up a specific page for your blog (and not just sharing via your personal Facebook account). “By having this blog page, I have people who follow me for my advocacy work follow that page and not my personal page.”

Susan Rahn also recommends connecting your blog to all your social media accounts. She has added a blog link to her Instagram bio too. “So all I need to do is create an Instagram post and direct followers to the link in my bio.”

11. Re-Share Older Blog Content

According to Susan, “re-sharing a blog post from time to time that is relevant to current events or conversations has been helpful” in growing her blog. “New followers may not have gone back through archives to read past posts so it’s new content for them,” she points out. This is a super tip. I’d add to this by saying that it’s a good idea to go back to the original post and see if it needs updating in light of current news or developments. Do you need to update a statistic or fact? Is there new research you can add to the post? Or a quote or comment to make it even stronger second time round?

12. Make It Easy To Share Your Content from Your Blog

When more people share your content, you increase the chance of driving more visitors to your blog. Make sure your social sharing buttons are clearly visible. By making it easy for visitors to your site to share your content, you increase the likelihood that they will take this action. To generate even more shares, install Click to Tweet, a handy tool which generates one-click tweet boxes or links that can be shared throughout your blog or via email.

13. Grow Your Online Followers

“Seek and ye shall find,” recommends Terri Coutee, founder DiepCFoundation, a non-profit organization providing information on options for breast reconstruction after mastectomy.   “I hold fast to this mantra even after blogging for over 3 years,” she says. “Just as with any business, bloggers must find who is interested in their content. Look for social media communities talking about what your blog content focuses on and cast a wide net. Don’t rely on just a few hashtags and groups. Visit those hashtags, those groups and see who they are connected to. Friend, like, re-tweet, and follow these people. Share your content across more than your own “wheelhouse” because when you least expect it, someone in one of those groups may need what you’re blogging about.”

The more people who follow you on social media, the more you can amplify your content and increase your social shares. Dee Sparacio recommends @mentioning (tagging) a person or an institution whenever you reference their research on your blog. This not only brings their attention to your blog, but it’s also a way to grow your followers. The key here is to find followers who share your interest and will be most likely to share your content. A great way to find like-minded followers is to join a Twitter chat related to your disease or condition, such as #gyncsm, #lcsm, #bcsm, etc. If you’re new to Twitter chats, you can learn more about how to take part here.

14. Use Relevant Hashtags

Hashtags are a powerful way to maintain your visibility on Twitter and Instagram and boost engagement with your followers.  According to Twitter’s own research tweets with hashtags show a 100 percent increase in engagement (clicks, retweets, likes and replies). Hashtags can also expand the reach of your message beyond just those who follow you to help you grow your network. Be sure to include the relevant hashtags when you share a link to your blog on social media. For more information on using hashtags strategically, read Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Hashtags in Healthcare…But Were Afraid To Ask!

15. Send an e-Newsletter to Subscribers

Newsletters can help keep your blog top of mind with readers. Use it to send an email digest of your most recent blog posts or notify your subscribers when you publish a new post. “I would advise anyone who wants to increase readership to her/his blog to consider sending out a monthly or weekly email with links to new posts and possibly one or two older ones,” recommends Nancy Stordahl. “I became very frustrated with Facebook’s algorithms because it seemed no one was seeing posts I shared. Having your own email list puts you and your readers in control. In my emails, I also share a couple of articles that have been in the news, or that I think might be of interest to my subscribers. Sometimes I share something personal and I often bounce around ideas. I love my subscribers and always value their input!”

Both Susan and Nancy use MailChimp as their email list provider. “I added a MailChimp widget that would popup to invite readers to subscribe (even though they are very annoying),” explains Susan. “Through that widget, I was able to set up an email blast at a predetermined time after a new blog was posted.”

Some bloggers are reluctant to set up a mailing list because they think it’s going to be a lot of hard work. Nancy has this advice to share: “Mailchimp is an easy setup and it’s free up to 2,000 subscribers. And don’t worry about how many subscribers you have. It takes a while to build a list of readers that truly want to read your posts. The ones that stick around are gems. It’s worth the extra work, for sure.”
If you’re interested in setting up your own email list, read How to Build Your Email List The Right Way to learn more.

Be Real, Be Authentic, Be You!

A final piece of advice is to be yourself and write from the heart. In Susan’s words, “Just be authentic. Be true to who you are. Let readers get to know you through your blog as if they are sitting down having coffee and conversation with you.”

Catherine Foy, who blogs at My Triple Negative Life, echoes Susan’s advice. “Be yourself when writing (as if you are talking/giving advice to a friend),” she says. “Don’t concentrate on follower numbers. Engage with like-minded people through social media or chats, follow people or organizations that you admire. Always be true to yourself and treat everyone online with respect.”

While it may be gratifying to have lots of blog readers, those numbers aren’t really what count. “We write for a reason and purpose,” Terri Coutee reminds us, “Telling your story should ultimately have the end goal of making a difference in someone’s life.” Even if you have only a handful of readers, you still have an incredible power. You have the ability to connect directly with every one of those readers and impact their lives. Perhaps it’s one piece of information which you share that’s the missing puzzle piece that someone needs right at that very moment of reading it.

If telling your personal story is the lifeline that even one reader needs to be able to hold on to hope, then your blog will be a precious gift to the patient community. As writer, Connie Rosser Riddle told me, the thing that sustains her blogging is writing from her passion. “Throughout life, I’ve been fascinated by stories, whether they were ones I read in books, or those of real life unfolding,” she explains. “Sometimes my blog posts concern my experience having triple-negative breast cancer. Those stories come from cancer intersecting with daily life, finding meaning in the moments of coping with reality and discovering beauty along the path.”

If you’d like to learn more about setting up your own blog from scratch, check out this guide.

Coping With Scanxiety: Practical Tips from Cancer Patients

“Every three to four months I get a wake-up call that my life has taken an unexpected turn. Believe me, there are daily reminders of how different I am now; but scan time is big time scary time, mentally. It takes living with cancer to yet another level of heighten sense of mortality and anxiety.  So MANY thoughts and what ifs course through my brain.  SO hard to shut it off.”  – Katie Edick, METASTATIC AND MAKARIOS.

It may not be officially part of the medical lexicon yet, but “scanxiety” is no less real for those of us who have experienced a diagnosis of cancer.   Pamela Katz Ressler, RN, MS, HNB-BC, founder of Stress Resources, describes scanxiety as “the anxiety, worry and fear that accompanies the waiting period before and after a medical test.” She says it is a common side effect of modern medicine. “As our medical system has become more technologically adept at measuring indicators of disease so too has our anxiety” she says. “Scanxiety is an unintended consequence of medical testing, yet it is one that is rarely discussed by medical professionals with patients.”

Writing in Time magazine in 2011, lung cancer survivor, Bruce Feiler, characterized scans as “my regular date with my digital destiny.  Scanxiety, he wrote, arises from the feeling of “emotional roulette wheels that spin us around for a few days and spit us out the other side. Land on red, we’re in for another trip to Cancerland; land on black, we have a few more months of freedom.”

One of the most common emotional and psychological responses to the experience of cancer is anxiety.  Cancer is a stressful experience and normal anxiety reactions present at different points along the cancer journey.  Did you know that the word anxiety comes from the Latin word anxius, which means worry of an unknown event? Worry, in turn comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “to strangle” or “to choke” – which may very well convey the feeling we have right before a scan, or whilst waiting for its results.

Anxiety is a natural human response that serves a biological purpose – the body’s physical “fight or flight” (also known as the stress response) reaction to a perceived threat. Symptoms vary for each person.  You may experience a racing or pounding heart, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, upset tummy, sweating or tense muscles. Alongside these physical manifestations, you may feel irritable, angry or apprehensive and constantly on the alert for signs of danger. All of these signs indicate that sympathetic arousal of our nervous system has been activated, preparing us to stand our ground and fight or take flight and run away from danger.

Scanxiety, points out Katz Ressler, can be intense and may mimic symptoms of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is an extreme anxiety disorder that can occur in the aftermath of a traumatic or life-threatening event. Symptoms of PTSD include re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares. As Susan Zager, founder of the non-profit organization, Advocates for Breast Cancer (A4BC), points out “MRIs are very noisy – and because my recurrence was found through an MRI biopsy, I have many memories of scary results from that test.”

It’s been over ten years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer and while my scans are less frequent these days, the anxiety never fully goes away. As blogger and patient advocate, Stacey Tinianov writes, “This is reality even after almost five years with no evidence of disease. I’m not a worrier or a hypochondriac. I’m just a woman whose body once betrayed her by growing a mass of rouge cells that, if left unchecked, have the potential to bring down the house.”

If you are facing an upcoming scan and feeling anxious about it, you may find the following tips helpful. Based on my own experience and the experience of others in the cancer community, these tips are some of the ways in which we have learned to cope with scanxiety.

1. Identify your body’s stress response

How we experience stress is individual to each of us. Learning to tune into what happens in your body when you perceive a stressful situation is the first step in understanding your individual stress response. Does your jaw clench? Is your breath shallow? Are your muscles tense? When you become more aware of your physical response to stress, it will help regulate the tension when it does occur.

2. Pay attention to your breathing

When we are stressed we tend to breathe more shallowly.  Shallow breathing, which does not allow enough oxygen to enter our bodies, can make us even more anxious.   When you feel stressed, practise taking some slow deep abdominal breaths.  Deep abdominal breathing slows the heart down and lowers blood pressure. The advantage of focussing on the breath is that it is always there with us. We can turn to it anytime we are feeling anxious.

3. Stay focussed on the present

Focussing on the past or future can increase your anxiety. Katz Ressler recommends staying focused on the present moment as a way to quieten anxious thoughts. “Methods that have proved successful for scanxiety focus on tools of resilience, often based on mindfulness strategies,” she says. “Key in these methods is to focus on the present moment and not on the outcome of a test or scan.” Focusing on each and every breath is an excellent way to begin to increase your awareness of the present moment.  If you would like to try some short mindfulness meditations to increase resilience and help decrease anxiety, you will find some on Katz Ressler’s website.

4. Use visualization

By enhancing your relaxation skills, you are can lower the fight or flight response that is often triggered during times of increased anxiety. Visualization involves using mental imagery to achieve a more relaxed state of mind. Similar to daydreaming, visualization is accomplished through the use of your imagination. Karin Sieger who has recently received a diagnosis of cancer for the second time, shares this advice, “I certainly keep my eyes shut when inside the machine; focus on my breathing; remind myself this has a start and finish; and then generally try and go in my mind to a calm meadow and have a snooze. Because for once there is nothing else I can or should do for the next minutes.”

5. Practical coping tips

Karin also points to the claustrophobic feeling of being enclosed in a scanning machine as a contributor to anxiety.  Stage IV breast cancer patient, Julia Barnickle recommends an NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) process, called the “Fast Phobia Cure” which worked for her. “I still don’t like enclosed spaces,” she says, “but I certainly don’t panic like I used to.” Blogger Margaret Fleming also recommends asking the attendants for any items that can make you more comfortable, such as ear-plugs or a blanket.

6. Break the worry habit

Worry can be a habit and like all habits can be broken.  As soon as that worry voice starts in your head, examine it before it takes hold. Ask yourself, will worrying about this help me in any way?  Julia writes, “For me, worrying is a choice – as is happiness. In the same way that I choose to be happy, regardless of what happens around me or in my own life, I also choose not to worry about – or fear – what might happen in the future. I tend to believe that things will work out for the best. And besides… what will happen will happen, regardless of whether or not I worry about it – so I don’t see the point of spoiling my enjoyment in the meantime. I prefer to get on with my life.”  Jo Taylor, who is living with secondary breast cancer agrees. “I have taken the view that nothing will change the outcome, therefore there’s no point in worrying,” she says.

7. Create an anxiety worry period

Many patients speak about the most anxious period of time being the time you are waiting for scan results. As stage IV blogger and patient advocate, Susan Rahn, writes, “Waiting for the results of any scan that will tell you if the cancer is active and taking up residence in new parts of your body is just as  anxiety inducing, if not worse, as the time leading up to and the day of the actual scan.”

You won’t be able to break the worry habit entirely and ignoring anxious thoughts and feelings can sometimes make them worse.  It’s still important that you acknowledge your worry but not let it control your life. One tip is to designate one or two 10-minute “worry periods” each day, time to fully focus on your anxiety. The rest of the day is to be designated free of anxiety. When anxious thoughts come into your head during the day, write them down and “postpone” them to your worry period.

8. Take Some Exercise

Exercise is one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce stress and anxiety –providing a natural outlet for your body when you are exposed to too much adrenaline. Jo Taylor, who runs an Exercise Retreat To Recovery program in the UK, finds that staying physically active is helpful. “I am still very nervous in the time between scan and reporting, “she says, “but throwing myself into work or exercise or anything else I do is helpful.”

Virtually any form of exercise, from aerobics to yoga, can act as a stress reliever. The important thing is to get moving, even if that means just walking around the block. Movement with flow and rhythm can also help calm the body and mind. Katz Ressler recommends gentle yoga and walking meditation as proven ways to decrease the stress response and increase the body’s natural calming mechanism. “Finally, remember”, she says, “while you cannot control the outcome, you can work to control the experience and that starts with building resilience.”

I hope you will find these tips helpful and if you have any other coping tips please feel free to add your advice in the comments below.

Patient Advocacy: Six Steps to Craft a Compelling Message

Patient advocacy involves sharing your unique knowledge and experience of a disease or condition with the ultimate aim of raising awareness and influencing people to create a desired change.  This might include speaking at an event, telling your story in the media, or working with an organization to develop new treatment guidelines.  This month’s post will show you the steps you should take to create a compelling message to get key issues across to your audience.

1. Develop Your Key Message

The first step is to work out the key message you want to communicate. Asking yourself the following questions will help you focus on the main issues.

  • Why do I want people to know about this condition?
  • Is very little known about the disease?
  • Are doctors not very good at diagnosing it?
  • What is the impact of the condition for me and for others?
  • What improvements are needed? Locally? Nationally? Internationally?

An effective message is credible, clear and convincing – ideally you should be able to communicate it in less than one minute – for example, “Cancer-related fatigue is poorly understood, but has been reported in 30–50% of breast cancer survivors in the first 5 years after treatment.”  The recommended approach is to have one primary message supported by two or three secondary messages. Write down your core message first. The purpose of the secondary messages is to support the core message and to explain how it can be achieved.

Insider Tip

Patient advocate and blogger, Kay Curtin (@KayCurtin1), who is a stage IV Melanoma patient, suggests taking a look at what other organisations are doing before committing “precious time and resources on replicating what’s already been done.”  Christina Lizaso (@btrfly12), co-moderator of the #gyncsm Twitter chat, agrees. “Look first to collaborate and move things forward vs. starting from scratch,” she recommends, “then think outside of the condition – what is the most important thing for someone who has never heard of it to know?”

2. Identify Your Target Audience

Deciding who your target audience is and how best to reach them is the next step. There are several broad groups you might consider, including other people with your condition, healthcare professionals, the media, legislators or the general public. Which group you focus on depends on what you are trying to achieve.  The more specific you are in identifying your audience, the more effective your message will be. To follow on from my example above, if I want the guidelines for cancer treatment to include cancer-related fatigue, I might want to target healthcare professionals, other patient organizations who are campaigning on similar issues, and organizations like the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

3. Craft Your Message

A persuasive message can be summed up in three words “Make Me Care.” Sharing your story and the stories of others affected by your condition is the most powerful and compelling way you can do this.  As Jo Taylor (@abcdiagnosis) founder of After Breast Cancer Diagnosis says, “your story is everything – it raises awareness and shows the passion behind why you are trying to make change as a patient advocate.” Jo also believes your story connects you to others with a similar story, which in turns helps to build strong networks to bring about change. Dementia advocate, Pablo Barredo (@Diario1Cuidador) points out that stories help create bonds not just with patients but with their caregivers too. “Patients and caregivers want personal stories and people who will understand them, not scientific terms they may not understand,” he says.  “They need to feel connected to someone who speaks their own language and understands them.”

Insider Tip

When sharing your story, author and breast cancer blogger, Nancy Stordahl (@NancysPoint) points out that “you have to be willing to share from your heart. Be real. Be you. It’s all about being authentic. Always come back to that. Allow others to see your vulnerabilities. When others see that you’re authentic, you’ve made it easier for them to care, not just about you, but about your message(s). Once they care they’ll want to learn more.” Antibiotic resistance campaigner, Vanessa Carter (@_FaceSA) agrees that authenticity is key. “You have to keep telling your story from the heart,” she says, “which is not easy when you’ve repeated it for so many years. It takes a lot of practice. I think it’s one of the greatest arts of advocacy.”

Be prepared that telling your story might make you feel emotional and vulnerable, so think carefully about how much you are willing to share before you make the decision to share it.  Let the audience know your boundaries. Be mindful too of boundaries if you are talking about a family member. How conformable are they with you sharing their story or aspects of your own story that may affect them? In Nancy’s words, “each person needs to find her/his own voice over time, figure out what works and feels comfortable for you, and then go with it.”

4. Create a Compelling Call-To-Action

According to the WHO, “you cannot mobilize people unless you ask them to do something. Aim to craft messages that will convince your audiences to act – rather than messages that simply communicate what you want to say.   As Christina Lizaso reminds us, “awareness is not the end goal – it should be taking you to education and to action.”

Think about what you want your listener or reader to do when you are finished telling your story? What will motivate them to act?  Outline clearly the next steps they need to take.  “Awareness should immediately be followed by an opportunity for action,” says breast cancer researcher and advocate, Jamie Holloway (@jamienholloway). While a “dramatic personal story is a more compelling ‘hook’ than just rhyming off a list of facts (no matter how alarming the facts are!),” says Carolyn Thomas (@HeartSisters), author of A Woman’s Guide To Living With Heart Disease,  “a story by itself isn’t the message.”

Insider Tip

Alison Cameron (@allyc375) feels strongly that sharing a personal story should be a starting point for action, not the end goal.  “For me, the personal story has its place yes, but is a starting not an end point, “she says. “The crucial thing is not to fall into ‘inspirational patient’ mode but to work with those listening to come up with concrete actions for change. I got very weary of being parachuted in to ‘tell my story’ then kicked out swiftly after being patted on the head and told how “inspirational” I am. What changed as a result of all that? Not a great deal.”

5. Communicate Your Message

Now that you have identified your target audience and crafted your message you need to think about how to communicate it. The most straight forward way of communicating is directly such as a face—to-face meeting, an email, or a phone call.  Plan ahead for how you will share your story.  What supporting material will make your story stronger? Can you share research data to support your key message(s)?  You don’t need to use too many facts, and detailed data – pick the data that is most relevant to your audience to help make your point; for instance, state data would be important to a state legislator, while patient outcome data would be relevant to healthcare professionals.  The WHO recommends you use facts and figures wisely – if you use too many it can overload and confuse your audience. Balance statistics with stories that convey the human cost of disease.

You should also use blogs and social media to spread your message to a wider audience. Bear in mind the content that works best on the platforms you have chosen. The continuing growth of visual platforms, such as Pinterest, Snapchat and Instagram means that creating visual content is more important than ever. There is a reason the most widely shared content nowadays is highly visual because visuals can rapidly create an emotional response and convey an idea very quickly. The type of visual assets you can create include images, videos, and infographics.

Insider Tip

Jo Taylor created her own infographic to raise awareness of the signs of secondary breast cancer. There are many tools out there which can help you create appealing images without any design skill. I’ve put together a list of free tools here which you may find useful.

6. Promote Your Message

People are more likely to believe and understand a message heard from more than one source. Promote your key message(s) through social media and encourage people to spread it through their social networks too. Research shows that 69% of people share information because it allows them to feel more involved in the world, and 84% share because it is a way to support causes or issues they care about. By making it easy for visitors to your website or blog to share your content, you increase the likelihood that they will take this action. Make sure your social sharing buttons are clearly visible on your site. This is the most obvious (though sometimes overlooked) way to encourage readers to share your content. By placing the buttons on the side or at the end of the article, people will be more inclined to share the article.

Insider Tip

Use a tool like Click to Tweet in your posts. This useful tool generates one-click tweet boxes or links that can be shared through your website, your blog, or via email, to increase social shares.

Wrapping Up

Raising awareness is the first step on the path to change. Change won’t happen right away and it will require patience and persistence. Siobhan Freeney (@breastdense) founder of Being Dense, an organization which raises awareness of breast density and its associated links to breast cancer and screening, believes “awareness is the precursor to change,” and you need “resilience, research, passion and patience” to succeed.  If success feels slow in coming, don’t lose heart.  As triple negative breast cancer blogger, Catherine Foy (@mytripleneglife) points out, “without you realizing it, your story may have given hope to someone struggling.” Even if your story hasn’t changed the world, it may, to quote Kay Curtin, “change somebody’s world.”