Music as Medicine: The Healing Power of Music

The late neurologist, Oliver Sacks in his book “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” argued that music is essential to being human in ways that we’ve only begun to understand. Music stimulates the brain centers that register reward and pleasure, which is why listening to a favorite song can make you happy.  There is in fact no single musical center in the brain, but rather multiple brain networks that analyze music when it plays, thereby giving music the power to influence everything from our mood to memory.

For cancer patients, music can be a powerful therapeutic tool in coping with a cancer diagnosis and treatment.   “Music was so important to me, “says breast density and cancer patient advocate, Siobhan Feeney (@BreastDense), “because my concentration was so poor I really struggled with reading books and watching movies through chemo.  I walked a lot and plugged into lots of beautiful music along the way.”

The Evidence Base for Music Therapy

Music therapy (the clinical use of music as a tool to help achieve treatment goals) is an evidence-based practice that harnesses the power of music to improve quality of life in people dealing with illness.  References to music therapy in the clinical setting dates back to a series of letters, published in The Lancet, in 1891, which discussed the approach of a group of musicians providing live music to patients in London hospitals. [1] From that point, music therapy established itself as a recognized health profession in the clinical context.

Research findings have supported a wide range of music therapy benefits from changing brain waves to lowering heart rate and blood pressure.  While clinical trials, to date, have been small, the results are promising.   Music therapy has been shown to boost the effects of anti-nausea medications in patients receiving chemotherapy and reduce pain perception.

In a study of patients who underwent surgery for lung cancer, the patients who received music therapy before and after surgery, reported less pain and had lower blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety. In addition, the dose and frequency of pain medication given after the surgery was reduced in the group who received music therapy. [2]

In 2013, a small Turkish study of 40 people found that using music therapy and guided visual imagery greatly reduced anxiety levels for patients undergoing chemotherapy.[3] The patients also had less frequent and less severe nausea and vomiting. Similarly, a study, conducted in 2017, found that music therapy could help reduce anxiety in patients having radiotherapy simulation. [4]

The benefits of music therapy are not confined to the clinical setting.  You can tap into your own self-directed music therapy session anytime by simply listening to some favorite songs or pieces of music. If you’re looking for some inspiration, check out the following suggestions crowdsourced online.

Although I’ve categorized these music choices according to genre, take a tip from breast cancer survivor and classically trained professional harpist, Amy Camie, who challenged herself to listen consciously to her sons’ heavy metal music. In doing so, Amy discovered music “can be a profound step in the exploration of self, in the conscious act of honest reflection that goes by many names–mindfulness, meditation, self-discovery, self-empowerment, and enlightenment.” [5]

Music Playlist

Choirs

Both Blanca (@BlancaUsoz), who is caring for someone with cancer, and John (@walls2) choose a piece of music sung by their favorite choirs.  For Blanca, listening to Leioa Kantika – Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (D. Modugno), sung by the choir of her hometown, lifts her mood.   “Music has played a pivotal role in helping me live with a terminal diagnosis,” says John. “I’ve been privileged to have gotten to know the amazing @mountsionchoir, who sang “Don’t Give Up” by @andygrammer for me at #ChoirsForCancer. It’s now my anthem.”

Classical

Jennifer (@vitalfrequencies) opts for a classical piece from Beethoven; his opera Fidelio, or his 5th,  6th and 9th Symphonies being particular favorites.

Indie Pop

Sally (@sally_crowe) finds Christine and The Queens’ song “Tilted” to be uplifting.

Rock

While Chris (@christheeagle1), who says he “fell back in love with his music collection through cancer”, chooses “Under The Bridge” by Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Ronny (@RonnyAllan1) suggests Oasis, “Don’t Look Back In Anger”.

Both Eva (@EvaAlloza) and Teresa (@tbaupuig) recommend listening to Spanish rock band  Jarabe de Palo. Lead singer, Pau Dones, recently died from colon cancer, but his songs, say Eva, “are full of vital energy.”

Wrapping Up

Music is a universal language. It can open the doors to empathy and understanding. In the words of Camie,”In a world full of separation, anger, prejudice, fear, judgment, and pain, perhaps by expanding our familiar musical tastes we could slowly develop a listening ear for others who may not fit into our comfortable genres. Perhaps listening to music that expresses life experiences from different perspectives will naturally nurture more tolerance and empathy for our brothers and sisters around the globe.”


References

[1] Boyde C, Linden U, Boehm K, Ostermann T. The Use of Music Therapy During the Treatment of Cancer Patients: A Collection of Evidence. Glob Adv Health Med. 2012;1(5):24-29.

[2] Wang Y, Tang H, Guo Q, et al. Effects of Intravenous Patient-Controlled Sufentanil Analgesia and Music Therapy on Pain and Hemodynamics After Surgery for Lung Cancer: A Randomized Parallel Study. J Altern Complement Med. 2015;21(11):667-672.

[3] Karagozoglu S, Tekyasar F, Yilmaz FA. Effects of music therapy and guided visual imagery on chemotherapy-induced anxiety and nausea-vomiting. J Clin Nurs. 2013;22(1-2):39-50.

[4] Rossetti A, Chadha M, Torres BN, et al. The Impact of Music Therapy on Anxiety in Cancer Patients Undergoing Simulation for Radiation Therapy. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2017;99(1):103-110.

[5] https://upliftconnect.com/building-tolerance-and-empathy-through-music/

How to Create a Month’s Worth of Posts for Your Advocacy Blog

Are you looking for a way to boost your advocacy activities online?

One of the best ways to do this is to create a blog.  Blogging shows your commitment and passion for your cause and because a blog is interactive, it’s also an extremely effective way to build a community and engage more people in your cause.

If you are brand new to blogging, and not quite sure how to start a blog, this step-by-step guide will get you up and running.

Many of us who blog start out with great intentions of writing regularly, but over time our inspiration well can run dry. Creating a blog is relatively easy; the challenge lies in consistently creating fresh content. Cancer blogger, Nancy Stordahl (@nancyspoint) recommends a consistent blogging schedule if you want to develop a loyal readership. “This takes commitment,” she explains, “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.”

In this article, I want to share with you a month’s worth of things to write about. Whether you’re new to blogging and looking for ideas to get started, or you’ve been blogging for a while but your writing has stalled, the following tips are designed to kick-start your writing efforts.  Commit to consistency by writing one blog post a week for the next month with these topic ideas as your guide.

10 Ways to Create a Month’s Worth of Blog Posts

1. Share Facts and Answer Questions for Your Readers

You might like to start by asking your readers what kind of questions they have that you can answer for them.  You could use Instagram, Twitter or Facebook to do this or you could search on a question and answer platform like Quora. On Quora you can ask a question about your topic or simply do a search using your topic keyword to find what people are asking about that topic. Make a list of those questions which you feel you could write about. When you have written a blog post on the topic, go back into Quora and answer a question related to the topic. You can include a link to your post in your answer.

2. Recycle Old Posts

Recycling content simply means taking one piece of content and finding a new way to create content around it. Identify your most popular content through your blog analytics tool. Now brainstorm some ways in which you can take this content and turn into a fresh post.  Can you turn it into a video or audio post? Are there any new research or treatment updates you can add since you first published this post? Can you get creative and create an infographic or develop a downloadable checklist using the original post as a starting point? You’ve already spent time and effort in creating your content, now spend a little more time to maximize that effort.

3. Compile a Glossary of Medical Terms

One of the things I remember most when I was a newly diagnosed patient was how mystifying the world of cancer was for me. I had to learn a whole new language consisting of unknown medical terms and scientific jargon to be able to understand my diagnosis. Make the process less mystifying for newly diagnosed patients by putting together a useful list of medical and scientific terms (as I did with this Clinical Trials Jargon Buster) and publishing it on your blog.

4. Share the Latest Medical Research in Your Disease Area

Have you been to a conference where you learned about new medical research? Or read about the latest research in a medical journal?  Let your readers know about it through your blog by providing a summary of the key findings and translating the information into easy to understand language for other patients.

5. Create a Reader’s Poll

There are several online tools you can use to create a readers’ poll. If you have a WordPress.com site, then you’ve already got Polldaddy polls built in. You can create, manage, and see results for all of your polls directly in your WordPress.com dashboard. If you use a self-hosted WordPress site, install the Polldaddy WordPress.org plugin. Once you’ve collected your poll data, publish a follow-up post with your findings.

6. Write about a Typical Day in Your Life

What’s it like to live with your condition on a day-by-day basis? What insights can you share to help others understand what a typical day is like for you and patients like you? Can you share helpful tips to cope with common everyday difficulties? Do you have advice for how family and friends can help you navigate your illness? As a person with lived experience you are in a unique position to shed light on what it’s like to cope with your illness by writing about it on your blog.

7. Embed Slide-Decks of Your Talks

Have you recently spoken at an event? Did you use slides in your presentation? Did you know you can upload your slide-decks directly to a platform called SlideShare? This is a great way to develop a portfolio of your speaking work and showcase it on your blog by simply inserting the embed code provided by SlideShare.

8. Invite a Guest Blogger to Write For You

Inviting another patient or healthcare professional you admire to write for you, not only expands your blog’s reach and readership, but adds a valuable new perspective to your site. For example, each week, Nancy Stordahl invites a different metastatic breast cancer patient to share their story on her blog for her regular #MetsMonday post.

9. Create Recurring Content

Creating regular recurring content, like Nancy does with #MetsMonday, is another excellent way to keep consistent with your content creation. Another suggestion is to create a round-up post each week – this could be a round-up of the latest research or a link to useful resources and articles you think would be helpful to share with your readers. Pick a day for this and stick to that day each week so readers know what they can consistently expect from you.

10. Plan Posts around Seasons and Events

This final tip is one of the easiest ways to create content on your blog that you can use on a regular basis. For example a post on how to survive the holiday season, or healthy eating during the holidays is a post you can use year after year. Add the dates of awareness days, such as World Cancer Day, to your calendar as a reminder to create content around these events.

Patient Advocacy: 10 Ways To Create Share Worthy Content For Social Media

 When you want to raise awareness of your cause, amplify your advocacy activities and create change where it is needed most, social media is an important channel to share your message with the world.

But it’s not enough just to create content and push it out online. How you create, publish, and promote your content will directly impact the chances that people will see it and want to share it with others.  In this article, you’ll learn 10 tried and tested ways to help you maximize your social shares and increase your social reach.

1. Create Something Worth Sharing

Let’s get straight to the point here. If you want people to share your content, you need to give them something worth sharing. The New York Times Customer Insight Group did a fascinating study a few years ago on the psychology of social sharing. It named five primary motivations for sharing:

  • People want to better the lives of others 
  • People want the content to reflect their online identity 
  • People want to grow and nourish relationships 
  • People share because they like the feeling of having others comment on it and engage
  • People want to spread the word about something that they believe in 

Actionable Tip:  Create content that your audience will want to share because they believe it will be of value or interest to others. Before you post something, stop and ask yourself would this pass the re-share test above?

2. Ask Your Followers What They Want To Learn About

One way to ensure you are creating content your followers want to read about and share is to simply ask them what kind of content they’d like more of.  You can create quick polls on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and post a question such as “What content do you want to see more of?”

Actionable Tip:  To take your audience research a step further you could survey your followers to get a deeper understanding of their preferences. Survey Monkey, Polldaddy and Google’s own survey forms are all simple tools to use.

3. Curate Relevant Content

Information is power and patients are becoming more empowered through increasing access to medical information online. However, one of the biggest challenges we face is trying to filter the vast repository of online content to find trustworthy content.  Instead of more information what we really need is more accessible, understandable and credible information on which to base our healthcare decision-making.

One solution is to curate reliable, up-to-date medical information in a format that is easy for patients to access, digest, and understand. Content curation is the process of finding and aggregating information about a specific topic, synthesizing it to be most relevant to your audience, and sharing it in an easily digestible manner.  Curation can deliver many benefits including, establishing thought leadership and credibility, increasing visibility and driving social shares.

Actionable Tip: Read this previous PEN article to learn how to become a more effective content curator for your healthcare community.

4. Use Relevant Hashtags

If you are using social media to find and share health information, chances are high you are already using hashtags. Hashtags, a way for users to easily find similar themed content, are used regularly by millions of social media users on Instagram and Twitter.

Actionable Tip: For more information on using hashtags strategically, read Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Hashtags in Healthcare…But Were Afraid To Ask!

5. Grow Your Online Followers

The more people who follow you on social media, the more you can amplify your content and increase your social shares. A great way to find like-minded followers is to search using disease-specific hashtags or join a Twitter chat related to your disease or condition, such as #gyncsm, #lcsm, #bcsm, etc

Actionable Tip: Read 12 Keys to Finding, Growing, and Nurturing Your Online Community for more tips on how to grow your online followers.

6. Add Images To All Your Posts

When it comes to creating content to support your message, the type of content you create matters. Humans are visual creatures — 90% of information transmitted to your brain is visual — and because of this people are drawn to visual elements that attract their attention. 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.

Actionable Tip: Add an image to all your online posts — even those that aren’t obviously visual. Read this guide to creating your own eye-catching visuals.

7. Create Infographics

Information graphics or infographics are stand-alone graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge. They are a form of visual content that is highly shareable; consistently “liked” and shared on social media three times more than any other type of content. In fact, the words “infographic” and “infographics” are searched an average of 547,000 times per month in Google.

Actionable Tip:  People are irresistibly drawn to facts, figures, and statistics. When you combine these with compelling graphics you have a persuasive tool to help your content cut through the online noise. A tool like canva.com will make it easy for even the novice designer to create interesting infographics.

8. Write Better Headlines

One of the ways to make your content more shareable is to write better headlines. Think about how many headlines you read every day while searching online or browsing social media. What makes you actually click on an article or post to read it? Quite often it’s the headline. Your headline is the first (perhaps only) impression you make on a prospective reader so it’s worth taking time to create a good one.

Actionable Tip:  Use numbers in your headlines. Several research studies have shown that headlines with numbers tend to generate significantly more social shares and engagement (interestingly, research shows that headlines that contain odd numbers have a higher click-through rate than headlines with even numbers).  When adding numbers to your title, use the numeral, not the word, as we tend to scan headlines online and a numeral makes your title more scannable.

9. Repurpose Your Best Content

Identify your top performing content in terms of shares, comments, likes, etc.  Now brainstorm some ways in which you can take this content and turn into something else.  For example, create an infographic to highlight key statistics, turn a quote into a graphic, or develop a downloadable eGuide.

Actionable Tip:  There are so many possibilities to get more out of high-performing content and increase your shares. Read How To Create Six Unique Social Shares From Just One Piece of Content for ideas on how to repurpose your content.

10. Analyze What’s Working For Your Peers

Look at the type of content your peers are creating. Identify which content is performing well for them in terms of social shares, comments, likes, etc. Think about how you can take a piece of content they have created and add your own insight and expertise to make it more even more valuable to your followers. I don’t mean you should copy their content verbatim, but use it as inspiration for your own content.

Actionable Tip: I use Buzzsumo.com to see which popular content is most shared right now on social media. These are the topics people want to read about so it’s worth brainstorming ideas around this content.

As you can see, with a little imagination and creativity there are many ways to increase engagement and reach with your existing content.  Try some or all of these tips and do let me know how it goes for you.

Practicing Self Care In The Time of Coronavirus – How To Mind Your Mental Health And Well-Being During Covid-19

As the coronavirus outbreak continues its relentless spread,  the impact of the pandemic is being felt across the globe.   We are facing a critical time of fear and uncertainty individually and in our communities.

COVID-19 will affect us all to varying degrees –  physically, emotionally, socially and psychologically.  

You may notice an increase in some of the following feelings:

  • feeling stressed and anxious
  • fearing that normal aches and pains might be the virus
  • excessively checking for symptoms, in yourself, or others
  • becoming irritable more easily
  • feeling insecure or unsettled
  • having trouble sleeping
  • feeling helpless or a lack of control
  • having irrational thoughts

Both The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)[1] and  The World Health Organisation (WHO)[2] have responded to the psycho-social impact of coronavirus by releasing  guidelines for those whose mental health is being negatively impacted.

In addition to these guidelines, many patient leaders are providing information and support to their communities through their social media channels.  To quote board certified coach, Nancy Seibel (@NancyLSeibel)  “those of us who have had cancer and other serious health challenges know something about how to self-calm and cope with uncertainty.  We know a lot about life being upended; uncertainty; living with but not in fear. It’s a hard-won gift, one that we can share with others.”  

While this is naturally a worrying time, there are many things we can do to mind our mental health and boost our immunity and well-being at this time. Being proactive about how you handle this crisis can help to keep both your mind and body stronger. I hope you will find the following tips helpful and reassuring as you navigate your way through this time of global crisis. 

10 Ways To Take Care Of Your Mental Health And Wellbeing During Covid-19

1. Recognize  What You Can Control

While many of the things that surround this crisis are outside of your control, you can still focus on those things that are within your control.  Hand washing,  staying at home,  limiting unnecessary travel and contact with others are steps we can all take to decrease our personal risk and protect others.   If you’re a cancer patient, currently undergoing treatment, you are in a high-risk group because cancer treatment compromises your immune system[3].  Follow the advice for High Risk Patients outlined on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.[4] 

That said, the reality of life as a cancer patient has probably prepared you for this moment better than most.  As breast cancer survivor, Diane Mapes, wrote in a recent Fred Hutch [5] article, “For the immunocompromised and those with disease, social distancing and uncertainty are a way of life.”

2. Focus On  The Facts

In a world of 24/7 rolling news and social media updates, it’s easy to get drawn into speculation and hype.   “It’s ok to be scared,” says breast cancer survivor, Karen Murray (@MurrayKaren),  “but don’t let fear take hold.” Rumors, myths and falsehoods can take on a life of their own if we let them, but as patient advocate, Nancy Stordahl[6] reminds us, “calmness is contagious too.”   

Keeping a realistic perspective of the situation based on facts is important at this time. Avoid media outlets that build hype or dwell on things that can’t be controlled. Stick to respected sources of information on the coronavirus and how to handle it. 

If you’re unsure  about something you’ve  read or heard, check it on the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at the Poynter Institute[7].   If you’re concerned about whether you may have COVID-19,  the Cleveland Clinic[8] has a free screening tool to find out your risk level, based on your symptoms and travel. Additionally,  Intermountain’s COVID-19 Symptom Checker[9] is an easy to use, digital tool to help people get important information about COVID-19, assess their risk, and navigate to the most appropriate care setting.  “These are scary times, for sure,” points out Nancy, “but knowledge is power. Learn what you need to in order to keep you and your loved ones safe.” 

3. Limit Your Exposure To The News

The constant stream of social media updates and news reports about coronavirus could cause you to feel extremely stressed. If the constant drip feed of live news and social media is making you  anxious,  limit your exposure to news outlets.  I’m not suggesting you totally  ignore important news  updates – it’s essential to keep yourself informed. But you can reduce your anxiety by reducing the amount of time you expose yourself to the news.  Limit your media consumption to a certain amount of time each day. According to WHO, minimizing the amount of news you watch can be beneficial in helping people keep calm and positive.  The organization also suggests we “find opportunities to amplify positive and hopeful stories and positive images of local people who have experienced Covid-19.”

4. Practice Good Self-Care 

It’s important to pay attention to your self-care needs, especially during times of stress. Eating a healthy, balanced diet, avoiding excessive alcohol and stimulants, getting plenty of sleep, practising relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises and meditation, and  taking daily exercise are key ways to stay physically and psychologically  healthy during stressful times.  Oncoplastic breast cancer and reconstructive surgeon,  Dr Tasha Gandamihardja (@DrTashaG) also suggests you “do little things that give you joy e.g. watch  a favorite program or read a favorite book.” 

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself at this time, advises metastatic breast cancer patient, Julia Barnickle (@JuliaBarnickle). “On days when I don’t have the energy to do much, I tell myself ‘just do one thing.’ If I feel like doing more, that’s great, but I never feel guilty about only being able to do one thing. So I choose the one thing that feels most important, whatever it is,” she says.

5. Keep Active

Build regular exercise into your day. There’s an abundance of scientific evidence showing how important fitness is for mental health: so during this very stressful time, it’s even more important.  The closure of gyms at this time doesn’t of course mean you can’t keep fit. Going for a walk or hike (if you  aren’t self-quarantined) watching a workout video online, practicing yoga or walking up and down stairs in your home are all ways to keep active and fit.   Cancer researcher, Emily Drake  (@EK_Drake), has seized on this time as an opportunity to learn to run. “I’ve never been a runner,” she explains, “ but with gyms and yoga studios closed – online just doesn’t work for me –  I need to get out.”

6. Eat To Beat Stress

Registered dietitian,  Cathy Leman[10] recommends you mix and match from these 29 foods each day to boost your body’s stress busting powers.

  • Vitamin C fruits and veggies
  • Green and red peppers, potatoes, oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, tomatoes, kiwi, cauliflower, cabbage, onions
  • Vitamin E foods
  • Dry roasted sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, safflower oil, wheat germ, green leafy vegetables
  • Polyphenolic foods
  • Chocolate, tea, coffee
  • Complex carbohydrate foods
  • Barley, rye, oats, whole wheat
  • Omega 3 foods
  • Walnuts, ground flax seeds, fatty fish, chia seeds, canola oil

7.  Stick To A Daily Routine

Your daily routine may be affected by the coronavirus outbreak in different ways. But according to WHO, people should try to stick to their daily routines as much as possible.  “Ensure that you create a realistic and helpful daily routine and structure to your day, and stick to it, “ recommends psychotherapist, Karin Sieger.[11] “Have regular times for getting up and going to bed as well as meal times.”

For those of us who are working from home maintaining a routine can be challenging.  The temptation to sit in pajamas all day is real. Try to  stick to a working routine as much as possible – this includes structuring  your day with regular breaks (try working in 45-60 minute chunks of focused work followed by a short break),  minimizing distractions,  stopping for lunch, getting some fresh air, avoiding staying in the same position for prolonged periods  of time and keeping hydrated.  

8. Stay Connected

While “social distancing,” is hypothesized to flatten the curve of the contagion,[12] it’s not without costs. Research shows that social support is vital for our mental and physical health. According to WHO, individuals in isolation are one group that may feel the impact on their mental health the most.  To combat the loneliness of self-isolation, the organization advises people  to “stay connected and maintain your social networks”. 

Maintaining strong connections will help you to feel supported, but since face-to-face in-person support is limited we need to find other ways to connect and receive support. Patient advocate,  Terri Coutee (@6state)  recommends  utilizing online platforms. “Call/text family members often and talk about fun times together,” she suggests.  Social media and social messaging apps are  a boon at this time. Patient advocate, Siobhan Feeney (@BreastDense) says she is “so grateful for my social media friends in many countries as we share the burden of this pandemic.”  In addition,  individuals who are self-isolating can also use QuarantineChat,[13] a new app that aims to connect people who are quarantined and may not have close family or friends to call. [14]

9.  Find Creative Distractions

Doing something creative can help improve your mood when you feel anxious or low. Creative activities can also increase your confidence and make you feel happier. This is because creative hobbies often completely absorb your attention, helping you to temporarily forget negative thoughts.  Carolyn Thomas (@heartsisters) shares this lovely idea for creating together with friends: “my paper-crafting friends and I are having our first ever virtual card-making workshop together via the miracle of video chat…. We each have a number of springtime birthdays coming up among our families and friends, so we’ll be creating springtime-theme birthday cards today.”

Looking for some more creative ideas? From baking to blogging, journaling to jigsaws, Sara Liyanage, author of Ticking Off Breast Cancer, has compiled a bumper list of distractions[15] for you to try.  Also check out PEN’s own Activity Guide here.   Experiment until you find something that suits you.

10. Practice Kindness and Self-Compassion

Nancy Seibel recommends shifting your focus to giving and receiving kindness.  “You’ll be worried, anxious or fearful at times. That’s a natural response to what’s happening, “ she says. “Accept those feelings compassionately. See if there’s anything to learn from them. Then shift your attention. Focus on what you’re grateful for. Walk. Ride your bike. Write. Dance.” She recommends starting with your own self-care, before expanding it out to others. “Calm and center yourself with meditation, deep breathing, knitting – whatever soothes you. Then support others. Spread a contagion of joy, love and kindness! That’s what will get us through this turbulent time.”

This Too Shall Pass

One of the things that is helping me right now is to tell myself that this reality is not forever. Patient advocate, Liza Bernstein[16] reminds us that while  “for now, #COVID19 feels like the entire world’s permanent reality… [but] within that, there are moments, nuances, and joy. There is hope, a delicious piece of chocolate, or a beautiful flower, or a hilarious meme, of if you’re lucky, a dog to play with, a loved one to hug (if you’re in the same home and healthy!)… or whatever floats your boat.”

The spread of coronavirus is a new and challenging event. Most people’s lives will change in some way over a period of days, weeks or months. But in time, it will pass. My wish for you today, especially if you are feeling anxious, alone, or fearful, is that you can find something to hold onto in this moment. To quote psychologist and breast cancer and SCAD survivor, Elizabeth McKenzie[17], “In this moment, as I write this, I have all that I need. I have my breath. I have my mind. I have my family. I have friends. I have shelter. I have clean water and good food. I have the nearby woods in which to walk. Not all moments are like this but right now it is.”


[1] CDC. Coronavirus Disease 2019

[2] WHO. Mental Health and Psychosocial Considerations During

COVID-19 Outbreak  In January 2020, The WHO declared the outbreak of a new coronavirus disease to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

[3] Fred Hutch. Coronavirus: what cancer patients need to know

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Are You at Higher Risk for Severe Illness?

[5] Fred Hutch. Lessons from cancer patients in the time of coronavirus

[6] Nancy’s Point. What Can Cancer Patients (or anyone) Do to Protect Themselves & Others During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

[7] The #CoronaVirusFacts / #DatosCoronaVirus Alliance unites more than 100 fact-checkers around the world in publishing, sharing and translating facts surrounding the novel coronavirus https://www.poynter.org/coronavirusfactsalliance.

[8] Cleveland Clinic. Find Out Your COVID-19 Risk

[9] Intermountain Healthcare. COVID-19 Symptom Checker.

[10]Dam.Mad. About  Breast Cancer. Eat These 29 Foods to Help You Manage Stress

[11] Karin Sieger. Coping With Difficult Times.

[12] Live Science. Coronavirus: What is ‘flattening the curve,’ and will it work?

[13] https://quarantinechat.com

[14] Quarantine is the separation and restriction of movement of people who have potentially been exposed to a contagious disease to ascertain if they become unwell, so reducing the risk of them infecting others. This differs from isolation, which is the separation of people who have been diagnosed with a contagious disease from people who are not sick; however, the two terms are often used interchangeably, especially in communication with the public. The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence

[15] Ticking Off Breast Cancer. Ways To Distract Yourself During Self-Isolation.

[16] It’s The Bunk. It’s #Covid19 – Start Where You Are

[17] My Eyes Are Up Here. All I Need

How Can You Best Support A Friend With Cancer?

What happens when someone close to you has been diagnosed with cancer?

How do you find the right words to say?

What is the best way to support them?

And how do you cope with your own emotions and feelings at the same time?

In this month’s article, I am sharing advice that comes directly from those who have personal experience of cancer – either as a patient themselves or as a friend or family member to someone with cancer.  The following tips are some of the things that friends said and did that were most helpful to cancer patients at the time of diagnosis and treatment.

Firstly, acknowledge that this can be a hard time for you too

Hearing that a friend has been diagnosed with cancer may impact you in ways that you might not be prepared for.  You may have many different emotions to cope with. You may feel angry, sad, and scared that this is happening to your friend. You may even find the news hard to take in and feel numb.   Breast cancer survivor, Nicole McClean[1] describes her feelings of numbness on hearing the news that her best friend was diagnosed with the same disease:  “I didn’t know what to feel. I didn’t know what to say. Everything I had said to other people didn’t really apply because this was MY friend. Not a stranger that I was comforting. Not even myself that I had to give a pep talk to.”

But don’t make it about you

In the shock of hearing about a friend’s diagnosis, it can be tempting to slip into a place of dwelling on your own fears and anxieties.  Nicole cautions others not to make this about themselves. “Please don’t be a friend like me. Don’t be the friend who makes the person with the diagnosis have to stop her own grieving to console you,” she says. “This is her moment. Her time to BE consoled. I don’t ever want her to feel like she needs to console me or comfort me during this time. That’s no longer her role. It is now mine.”

Just ask what’s needed

“My number one tip,” says radiation oncologist, Dr Matthew Katz (@subatomicdoc),  is “just ask what you can do to help. It can be hard to predict and may vary at different times in the cancer experience.”  Breast  surgeon, Dr Deanna Attai (@DrAttai) agrees: “Ask the patient what do you need, ask if they just want some company to sit, listen and be present.”

Above all, advises author and advocate, Nancy Stordahl (@NancysPoint) “don’t try to be a fixer and please, avoid using platitudes. Don’t tell her she’s strong, brave or courageous. Don’t add to her burden by making her feel she must live up to some gold standard of “doing cancer right”. Let her be real. Witness her pain. Listen. Just be there.”

Listen, hear and do

“The steps to being a good friend and supporter are simple”, says Nicole, “Listen and do.”  The first part is listening. “Listen to her. Or just sit with her silently. But either way, give her space where she’s comfortable sharing with you what’s in her heart without that moment becoming about you.“  

John Moore (@john_chilmark), founder of Chilmark Research, echoes this when he says: “Listen, truly listen and they will open up in time to the fear they hold within – just how scary it can be at times.”

Julia, co-founder of online breast cancer support community @BCCWW agrees. “Listen and hear,” she advises,  “if they have bad days let them, cancer isn’t fun times. Flip side: if they feel good, believe them.”

And it’s ok to not know what to say sometimes.

“Something that I think is helpful is for friends and family to remember that it’s okay if you don’t know what to say to the person with cancer,” explains Lisa Valentine (@HabitgratLisa), ·who blogs at habitualgratitude.com. “Show up, say “I don’t know what to say, but I am here for you.” Take it from there. Showing up and listening usually takes care of what can happen next.”

HER2 breast cancer patient, Tracy (@tracyintenbury) suggests offering to go to “chemo sessions if the person with cancer would otherwise be attending alone.”  Metastatic breast cancer patient, Ilene Kaminsky (@ilenealizah) appreciated those who attended medical appointments with her “especially during the first months when everything seemed to proceed at the pace of tar, and again during critical appointments/ chemo days.”

Do what needs to be done

Don’t ask her what she needs, just do something that she needs,”  recommends Nicole. “Show up, and help out.” Chair of Cardiomyopathy, CR UK patient board and NCRI rep for kidney and bladder cancer, Alison Fielding (@alisonfielding) agrees: “Make specific offers of help such as lifts, company or chores rather than waiting to be asked.”

“Anyone who said let me know if you need anything wasn’t going to get an answer,” explains Ilene “so during difficult times, one or two of my friends would do my wash, change the sheets and put the clothes away. She’d bring me smoothies while I’d be knocked out from my pre-taxol Benadryl and knew exactly what I’d like.”

Clinical Professor of Pathology, Dr David Grenache (@ClinChemDoc), cautions following through with offers of help. “From experience: when you tell them you will do what you can to help, then follow through with that when you are asked for help.  You may have to drop a high priority task but when the call for help comes. Go!” 

Victoria (@terrortoria), founder and community manager of @YBCN_UK (which supports young women with breast cancer), recalls a friend who “made home made soup for me when I told her I couldn’t bring myself to eat things. She left them on my doorstep as I couldn’t bring myself to see people either for a time. It was a 90-minute round trip for her. She’d listened to how I felt and then helped me within my limits.”

This theme of cooked meals comes up again and again. 

“Cook meals so the person with cancer has something warm and nutritious,” recommends Tracy.  Maureen Kenny (@MaureenKenny1), a patient living with secondary breast cancer, agrees, saying “you can never go wrong with a cooked meal.”

After a long day in hospital, breast cancer patient advocate, Siobhan Feeney (@BreastDense)  recalls the day she came home to find “in the porch, cooked dinner, homemade bread, marmalade and fresh eggs.” A gift she says she’ll never forget. 

Alleviating the pressure of cooking and housework is a super practical way to help a friend with cancer. Sarah Connor (@sacosw), shares a story about her neighbour who “came once a week, took away a basket of dirty clothes, brought them back washed, dried, ready to put away. She didn’t know me very well. Still makes me tingle.”

Give thoughtful gifts

From warm socks and soft blankets to body lotion and lip balm, there are many gifts you can bring a friend who is going through treatment. Beverly A. Zavaleta MD[2], author of Braving Chemo, writes:  “Each time someone sent me a gift I felt a connectedness to the giver and to the “outside world,” which was a welcome escape from the cancer world that I was living in… when I received a gift, I appreciated the time that that person took to remember me, to think of what I might need and to choose, assemble or make the gift.”

Breast cancer survivor, Karen Murray (@murraykaren) recommends practical gifts like “hand cream (skin very dry after chemo), gel for mouth ulcers (also common), some nice sweets/fruit.”

Male breast cancer survivor, Dennis Keim (@denniskeim) suggests “a jar of Aquaphor might be a nice gift. Especially if their skin is getting hammered by chemo.”

“Help the cancer patient pamper themselves,” proposes Lisa Valentine. “You know your friend or family member well enough–get them something they wouldn’t get themselves because they would think it’s extravagant–i.e. the expensive chocolate or a pedicure.” What may seem like an indulgence can also be extremely practical. “Taking me for gel nails protected my ever softening nails,” explains Ilene Kaminsky.

Although be mindful that not everyone appreciates the same things. 

“I wasn’t interested in toiletries, candles. Wine gums – they mask the taste of a nasty pre-chemo antiemetic,” says Syliva (@SylviaB_). “People often think buying flowers is naff. I adored it when people bought me flowers. A couple of people bought spectacular flowering plants.”  Breast cancer blogger, Sheri[3] received the fabulous gift of a monthly subscription to in-home flower deliveries during treatment.

Help with treatment decisions

If you have already been through cancer yourself, your friend may turn to you for treatment advice. You can guide them to helpful resources  and share your own experience, but ultimately the final decision is theirs alone. Sometimes you may not agree about treatment decisions. This can be hard for both of you. Try to accept this and support their decision. “I think not being critical with someone’s choices is very important. Support should not be in spite of circumstances,” says Ilene Kaminsky.

Offer compassion and kindness

Two-times breast cancer survivor and patient advocate Terri Coutee[4] believes the best gifts you can offer a friend is compassion and kindness. “Hold a hand if you are with a friend or loved one in person,” she advises. “You don’t even have to say anything. Perhaps your warm, human touch is enough. Tell them you have no idea how they are feeling at the moment but want to support them in any way you can. Be sensitive to the fact they may only need someone to listen, not advise.”

John Hanley (@ChemoCookery) considers “small practical actions and warm, soothing, short reassuring words are perfect.” Words like “I’m going nowhere and I’ll be here shoulder to shoulder when you need me. A little note/text/card “Here for you 24/7 anytime.”A HUG, an Embrace, a hand, eye contact.”

Sara Liyanage, author of Ticking Off Breast Cancer [5]  reminds us that “a cancer diagnosis turns your world upside down and overnight you can become scared, emotional, vulnerable and anxious. Having friends and family step up and show kindness is a lifeline which can carry you through from diagnosis to the end of treatment (and importantly, beyond).”

Treat your friend like you normally would

Researcher, Caroline Lloyd (@TheGriefGeek), cautions us not to “make it all about the cancer, they are still a person.”  Writer and metastatic breast cancer patient, Julia Barnickle (@JuliaBarnickle) agrees. “I prefer to keep conversation as normal as possible for my own sake – I don’t want cancer to take over my life.”

Stage 4 melanoma patient advocate, Kay Curtin (@kaycurtin1) suggests you talk to your friend “like you would any friend. We haven’t suddenly become aliens who require a different style of language,”  she points out.  Sherry Reynolds (@Cascadia), whose Mom is a 15-year metastatic breast cancer patient, talks about how her mother “really appreciated it when people talked to her about regular things vs always talking about her cancer or asking how she was doing. She was living with her cancer, it wasn’t who she is.”

Know when to back off

“What I didn’t want, which is equally important, was people trying to encourage me to go anywhere or do anything,” says Syliva (@SylviaB_).“ I spent a lot of time on my sofa and felt guilty saying no to people who wanted me to go out.”

Knowing when to be there for your friend, and when to give them space isn’t always easy.  but it’s an important balancing act as a good friend.  In Tips for Being A Great Cancer Friend, Steve Rubin,[6] points out that “sometimes, the overstimulation from nurses popping in, PT sessions, and all the tests/drug schedules can become so exhausting that you just want to be left alone. Other times, the loneliness kicks in and you could really use a friendly face.”

It may take time to find the right balance, so let your friend guide you.   Nicole McClean shares her experience with her friend: “I haven’t spoken to her a lot. I didn’t want to become that sort of pesky, well-intentioned friend who searched for every little thing that might show how she was feeling at any particular moment.  Because I know that her feelings would change from moment to moment and sometimes… sometimes it’s just too much to have someone repeatedly ask you… “how are you really feeling?” even when you know they mean well. At this point, I am letting her guide me into how much she needs me and where she wants me to be.”  

At the same time, Terri Coutee advises gentle persistence:  “Don’t give up if you offer help and they don’t respond. Revisit your offer to do something for them with gentle persistence. One day they may decide they need your help,”  she says.  Maureen Kenny recalls “a friend who texted me every time she was about to go shopping to see if I needed/wanted anything while she was out. I rarely did but I always really appreciated her asking.”

Make your support ongoing

Support is not just one and done.  In the shock and drama of a crisis, friends rally round, but once the shock has worn off many disappear. True friends stick around long after the initial days, weeks and months of a cancer diagnosis. Ilene asks that friends continue to“remember birthdays, cancerversaries, and remember me on holidays. A card means a lot even to just say hi.”

Final thoughts

Many studies have found that cancer survivors with strong emotional support tend to better adjust to the changes cancer brings to their lives, have a more positive outlook, and often report a better quality of life. Research has shown that people with cancer need support from friends. You can make a big difference in the life of someone with cancer. [7]

“I personally loved just knowing I was cared for, says lobular breast cancer campaigner, Claire Turner (@ClaireTTweets). “A number of friends didn’t contact me or come and see me and that hurt, so simply be there in whatever way means something,” she advises.

“The truth is basic,” says Nicole McClean, “nobody wants somebody they love to go through cancer. Especially if they’ve been through it themselves. You want people you love to be spared this type of hardship. But you can’t protect them from it. You can only help them through it. Be there for them in the ways that they need.”

Tailoring your help to what your friend needs and enjoys most is the best way to be a friend to them. As four-times cancer survivor Sarah Dow (@he4dgirl) points out “the answers will surely be as varied as we are, both in life generally, our experience of cancer, and our connection with our friend.”


[1] Nicole McClean. My Fabulous Boobies.

[2] Beverly A. Zavaleta MD, The Best Gifts For Chemotherapy Patients

[3] Life After Why

[4] Terri Coutee, DiepCJourney

[5] Sara Liyanage, “What To Do (And What Not To Do) For Someone With Breast Cancer”

[6] Steve Rubin, The (Other) C Word

[7] American Cancer Society, “How to Be a Friend to Someone With Cancer”

Cancer Trauma: How To Know If You’re At Risk and Key Strategies for Recovery

The impact of cancer extends beyond the merely physical. While treatment targets cancer specifically in the body, the experience doesn’t leave the mind, spirit or emotions untouched.  The toll it takes has been likened to a natural disaster or trauma. In fact, recent studies have put forward the theory that surviving cancer fits the framework of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). [1] The term PTSD is commonly used to describe a range of symptoms an individual may develop in response to experiencing a traumatic event, in which bodily harm was experienced or threatened.

Most people associate PTSD with war veterans and victims of violent crime, but any life experience in which our safety and mortality are threatened can trigger PTSD. The physical and mental shock of having a life-threatening disease is a traumatic event for many cancer patients.[2] The experience of trying to get back to normal after cancer treatment ends mirrors that of returning combat soldiers. The immediate crisis is over but our sense of security is shattered, leaving us feeling unsettled and vulnerable.

And what of those for whom treatment doesn’t end?  Metastatic breast cancer patient, Abigail Johnston points out that “for men and women enduring the trauma of cancer treatment, the trauma is never over… reminders exist everywhere, ready to pop out when least expected to wreak havoc.” [3]

Could You Have Cancer-Related PTSD?

The symptoms of PTSD are similar to those of other states such as depression and anxiety, but one of the main signs that distinguishes PTSD is re-experiencing the traumatic event, often in the form of recurrent dreams or intrusive thoughts.  These may consist of persistent memories of taste, smell, touch, and sound (for example you may still be able to “taste” the metallic taste of chemotherapy when you think about the event).

A number of risk factors may make you more vulnerable to PTSD.   Your life experiences, including the amount and severity of trauma you’ve gone through since early childhood; having a high level of stress or other mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression; lacking a good support system of family and friends; and the way you deal with stress are all contributing factors.  On the other hand, certain factors, such as increased social support, accurate information and supportive medical staff may lower the risk of developing PTSD.

Signs and Symptoms of PTSD

Symptoms of PTSD can arise suddenly, gradually, or come and go over time.  Sometimes symptoms appear seemingly out of the blue. At other times, they are triggered by something like the anniversary of your diagnosis or surgery, follow-up scans, or a certain image, sound or smell.

There is no right or wrong way to think, feel, or respond to cancer, but it’s important to know which symptoms and signs to look out for, so you can put strategies in place to deal with it. People react in different ways to traumatic events and you may experience some or all of the following reactions to a greater or lesser degree.

  • Re-living the traumatic event: Intense memories of the time around your diagnosis, flashbacks or nightmares, especially if accompanied by symptoms like racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, or uncontrollable shaking.
  • Increased arousal: Feeling hyper-alert ( the “fight” and “flight” reaction is always on even though there is no present danger at hand), on edge, irritable, easily startled or angered; mood swings, difficulty sleeping or concentrating.
  • Avoidance: Staying away from places that remind you of the traumatic time (for example, avoidance of follow-up appointments).

8 Key Strategies and Tips for Recovery

 

1. Acknowledge and accept your feelings

Don’t deny or ignore how you are feeling. Accepting your feelings is part of the healing process. Allow yourself to feel what you feel without judgment or guilt. Remember,  there is no right or wrong way to think, feel, or respond to cancer.  Be compassionate to yourself and patient with the pace of recovery.  Talk through your fears with someone you trust. Try journaling, art or other creative outlets to help you work through your feelings.

2. Avoid obsessive thinking

While it’s  important not to ignore your feelings, obsessively dwelling on them will slow the healing process down.  One tip is to designate one or two 10-minute periods each day, time in which you can fully focus on your feelings. When intrusive thoughts come into your head during the day, write them down and “postpone” them to the period you’ve designated.

3. Reduce your stress

Make relaxation a part of your regular routine. Learn to meditate, practice yoga, take a walk in nature or do whatever it is that helps you relax and unwind. Relaxation is not a luxury – it is a necessary step in your recovery.

4. Take regular exercise

Regular exercise boosts serotonin, endorphins, and other feel-good brain chemicals.  It’s one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce stress and anxiety, helping you feel grounded in times of emotional stress.

5. Eat a healthy diet

A healthy body increases your ability to cope with stress from a trauma.  Foods rich in certain omega-3 fats—such as salmon, walnuts, soybeans, and flaxseeds—can give your mood a boost. Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine, which can worsen symptoms.

6. Get plenty of sleep

Poor sleep can make your trauma symptoms worse. Go to sleep and get up at the same time each day and aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.

7. Pay attention to triggers

Anniversaries of your surgery, diagnosis and other cancer-related milestones can reawaken memories and feelings. Plan ahead for those times.

8. Connect with others

Following a trauma, you may want to withdraw from others, but isolation makes things worse. Research shows that support from others is an important part of your healing journey.  Look to cancer support groups in your area or search online for groups.   Talking to a psycho-oncologist or counsellor can also help.

When to Seek Help

It’s normal to feel anxious and unsettled after a traumatic event such as cancer.  A diagnosis of cancer is distressing, the treatments and side effects are stressful, and the fear of recurrence is frightening.  Most people find the intensity of their feelings will ease in a relatively short period of time, but for some the feelings will stick around or increase in intensity.

If painful thoughts and intrusive memories last longer than a month, and begin to cause problems in your  personal relationships, employment, or other important areas of daily life,  it’s important to seek a professional diagnosis of PTSD. The sooner PTSD is tackled, the easier it is to overcome.  Unfortunately, many patients are not referred to psycho-oncology services to be assessed and treated, as high levels of sadness and anxiety are often perceived as ‘normal’ reactions to cancer diagnosis and treatment,[4] so it may be up to you to advocate for your own assessment.

Types of treatment can include cognitive-behavioral therapy (adapting negative ways of thinking into more positive ones to help “re-frame” the traumatic experience); exposure therapy (to help you safely face the thing that you find frightening); medication (antidepressants/anti-anxiety drugs); and psychotherapy. When looking for a therapist, seek out mental health professionals who specialize in the treatment of trauma and PTSD.

You may also want to consider a form of treatment called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral and exposure therapy with rhythmic eye movements designed to stimulate the information-processing system in the brain. The aim of the treatment is to help you process the traumatic events, and speed up recovery.

Conclusion

A trauma like cancer shatters our sense of security,  making us feel powerless and vulnerable. Taking positive action towards recovery directly challenges this sense of helplessness and helps us regain a sense of control.  It can take time to get over the trauma and feel safe again.  But by seeking treatment, reaching out for support, and developing new coping skills you can heal and move on with your life.


[1] The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders introduced malignant disease in its definition of PTSD in 1994.

[2]  The National Cancer Institute estimates that approximately 35% of patients experiencing cancer may suffer symptoms of PTSD.

[3] No Half Measures. “The Violence of Cancer” https://nohalfmeasures.blog/2020/01/09/the-violence-of-cancer/

[4] Leano, A., Korman, M. B., Goldberg, L., & Ellis, J. (2019). Are we missing PTSD in our patients with cancer? Part I. Canadian oncology nursing journal = Revue canadienne de nursing oncologique, 29(2), 141–146.

Understanding Clinical Trials: A Jargon Buster Guide

When it comes to cancer treatment you or a loved one may be considering participating in a clinical trial as a treatment option.  Clinical trials are designed to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of a treatment. They may involve researchers administering drugs, taking blood or tissue samples, or checking the progress of patients as they take a treatment according to a study’s protocol.

Learning about clinical trials can be a steep learning curve – not least because the process comes with a lot of new terms, acronyms and jargon.  To help you, I’ve put together this list of the most common terms you will find when you are researching clinical trial information. This is not an exhaustive list but it is a helpful starting point. At the end of this article you will see links to find more information.

Adverse Effects (AE)

Also called Adverse Events, or Adverse Drug Reaction, AEs are any harmful event experienced by a person while they are having a drug or any other treatment or intervention. In clinical trials, researchers must always report adverse events, regardless of whether or not the event is suspected to be related to or caused by the drug, treatment or intervention.

Arm

Subsection of people within a study who have a particular intervention.

Bias

Bias is an error that distorts the objectivity of a study. It can arise if a researcher doesn’t adhere to rigorous standards in designing the study, selecting the subjects, administering the treatments, analysing the data, or reporting and interpreting the study results. It can also result from circumstances beyond a researcher’s control, as when there is an uneven distribution of some characteristic between groups as a result of randomization.

Blinding

Blinding is a method of controlling for bias in a study by ensuring that those involved are unable to tell if they are in an intervention or control group so they cannot influence the results. In a single-blind study, patients do not know whether they are receiving the active drug or a placebo. In a double-blind study, neither the patients nor the persons administering the treatments know which patients are receiving the active drug. In a triple-blind study, the patients, clinicians/researchers and the persons evaluating the results do not know which treatment patients had. Whenever blinding is used, there will always be a method in which the treatment can be unblinded in the event that information is required for safety.

Comparator

When a treatment for a specific medical condition already exists, it would be unethical to do a randomized controlled trial that would require some participants to be given an ineffective substitute. In this case, new treatments are tested against the best existing treatment, (i.e. a comparator). The comparator can also be no intervention (for example, best supportive care).

Completed

A trial is considered completed when trial participants are no longer being examined or treated (i.e. no longer in follow-up); the database has been ‘locked’ and records have been archived.

Control

A group of people in a study who do not have the intervention or test being studied. Instead, they may have the standard intervention (sometimes called ‘usual care’) or a dummy intervention (placebo). The results for the control group are compared with those for a group having the intervention being tested. The aim is to check for any differences. The people in the control group should be as similar as possible to those in the intervention group, to make it as easy as possible to detect any effects due to the intervention.

Efficacy

How beneficial a treatment is under ideal conditions (for example, in a laboratory), compared with doing nothing or opting for another type of care. A drug passes efficacy trials if it is effective at the dose tested and against the illness for which it is prescribed.

Eligibility Criteria/ Inclusion and Exclusion Criteria

Eligibility criteria ensures patients enrolling in a clinical trial share similar characteristics (e.g. gender, age, medications, disease type and status) so that the results of the study are more likely due to the treatment received rather than other factors.

Follow-up

Observation over a period of time of participants enrolled in a trial to observe changes in health status.

Informed Consent

A process (by means of a written informed consent form) by which a participant voluntarily agrees to take part in a trial, having been informed of the possible benefits, risks and side effects associated with participating in the study.

Intervention

The treatment (e.g., a drug, surgical procedure, or diagnostic test) being researched. The intervention group consists of the study participants that have been randomly assigned to receive the treatment.

Investigator

A person responsible for the conduct of the clinical trial at a trial site. If a trial is conducted by a team of individuals at a trial site, the investigator is the responsible leader of the team and may be called the principal investigator (PI).

Multicentre Trial

A clinical trial conducted according to a single protocol but at more than one site, and therefore, carried out by more than one investigator.

Number needed to treat (NNT)

The average number of patients who need to receive the treatment or other intervention for one of them to get the positive outcome in the time specified.

Outcome Measures

The impact that a test, treatment, or other intervention has on a person, group or population.

Phase I, II, III and IV Studies

Once the safety of a new drug has been demonstrated in tests on animals, it goes through a multi-phase testing process to determine its safety and efficacy in treating human patients. If a drug shows success in one phase, the evaluation moves to the next phase

  • Phase 1 tests a drug on a very small number of healthy volunteers to establish overall safety, identify side effects, and determine the dose levels that are safe and tolerable for humans.
  • Phase II trials test a drug on a small number of people who have the condition the drug is designed to treat. These trials are done to establish what dose range is most effective, and to observe any safety concerns that might arise.
  • Phase III trials test a drug on a large number of people who have the condition the drug is designed to treat. Successful completion of Phase III is the point where the drug is considered ready to be marketed.
  • Phase IV trials can investigate uses of the drug for other conditions, on a broader patient base or for longer term use.

Placebo

A fake (or dummy) treatment given to patients in the control group of a clinical trial.  Placebos are indistinguishable from the actual treatment and used so that the subjects in the control group are unable to tell who is receiving the active drug or treatment. Using placebos prevents bias in judging the effects of the medical intervention being tested.

Population

A group of people with a common link, such as the same medical condition or living in the same area or sharing the same characteristics. The population for a clinical trial is all the people the test or treatment is designed to help.

Protocol

A plan or set of steps that defines how something will be done. Before carrying out a research study, for example, the research protocol sets out what question is to be answered and how information will be collected and analysed.

Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT)

A study in which a number of similar people are randomly assigned to 2 (or more) groups to test a specific drug, treatment or other intervention. One group has the intervention being tested; the other (the comparison or control group) has an alternative intervention, a placebo, or no intervention at all. Participants are assigned to different groups without taking any similarities or differences between them into account. For example, it could involve using a computer-generated random sequence. RCTs are considered the most unbiased way of assessing the outcome of an intervention because each individual has the same chance of having the intervention.

Reliability

The ability to get the same or similar result each time a study is repeated with a different population or group.

Sample

People in a study recruited from part of the study’s target population. If they are recruited in an unbiased way, the results from the sample can be generalised to the target population as a whole.

Subjects

In clinical trials, the people selected to take part are called subjects. The term applies to both those participants receiving the treatment being investigated and to those receiving a placebo or alternate treatment.

Trial Site

The location where trial-related activities are conducted.


References

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)

TROG Cancer Research

ICH.org

NICE

Further Resources

American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Cancer.Net trials site

National Cancer Institute (NCI) Clinical Trials lists open and closed cancer clinical trials sponsored or supported by NCI. 

ClinicalTrials.gov database of privately and publicly funded clinical studies

CenterWatch Clinical Trials Listing

Is Chemobrain Real? Coping With Cancer-Related Cognitive Changes

A familiar name on the tip of your tongue, keys misplaced, a train of thought derailed in the middle of a sentence. If what I’ve just described sounds familiar, you may be experiencing symptoms of “chemobrain” – a name for the cognitive (how you process and recall information) difficulties associated with cancer treatment.

Although one of the most frustrating side effects of chemotherapy, not long ago, the medical profession was skeptical when patients who had completed treatment complained of a kind of mental haze or fog. Today, despite some lingering skepticism, research studies confirm what patients have long reported – that chemobrain is a real issue for people living with and beyond cancer.

The first of these studies [1] which was published in 2011 was conducted at Stanford University and used functional MRI imaging (fMRI) to compare the brain images of healthy women and women with breast cancer. The study found that not only did brain activity differ, but that those patients who had undergone chemotherapy had additional specific differences and decreases in executive function – the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.

Signs and Symptoms of Chemobrain

A more formal term – post-cancer cognitive impairment (PCCI) – is used by researchers to describe a group of symptoms, which include slow mental processing, difficulty concentrating, organizing, and multitasking. Things you could do easily before cancer are now more difficult.

Symptoms can also include:

  • memory loss – forgetting things that you normally remember
  • tiredness and mental fogginess
  • struggling to think of the right word for a familiar object
  • difficulty following the flow of a conversation
  • confusing dates and appointments
  • misplacing everyday objects like keys and glasses

These symptoms can be especially frustrating when you are at work or in social situations. “It can be difficult to explain to others what we are going through,” explains therapist Karin Sieger [2]. “I like to use the example of a computer. If our brain was a computer used to running 6 apps and multi-tasking for example on Facebook, Twitter, watching TV and doing WhatsApp at any given time, with chemo brain our brain may be able to use one app only, and even then only for a short period of time. It will also take a lot longer to re-charge.”

What Causes Chemobrain?

It’s still not clear how many people with cancer get chemobrain or which drugs cause it. People who had high doses of chemotherapy may report memory problems, but even those who had standard doses have also reported memory changes.

Cyclophosphamide, Adriamycin, 5-FU, and Taxol seem to be particular culprits, but there are others that can cause the condition.  Tamoxifen, and to a lesser degree, aromatase inhibitors may also have a negative effect on cognition.

Research also suggests that a combination of factors, including the stress and anxiety of a cancer diagnosis and side effects of treatment such as fatigue, anaemia, sleep disturbances or hormonal changes can also play a part.

Who Gets Chemobrain?

When it comes to answering the question of which patients get chemobrain, studies have reported a wide range of different figures, ranging from 17% to 60%. The condition can affect people with different types of cancer and at different times. It affects men and women of all ages, although people might be more likely to have the condition if they are older or already have problems with memory or anxiety and depression.

Can I Reduce The Symptoms Of Chemobrain?

There are several things that you can do to help you cope better with chemobrain.

Make sleep a priority

Research has found that not sleep deprivation can affect our ability to commit new things to memory and consolidate any new memories we create. Getting enough sleep is a state that optimizes the consolidation of newly acquired information in memory. [3]    Even a short nap can improve your memory recall.

Take regular exercise

Studies have shown that regular exercise can improve memory as physical activity will increase blood flow to your whole body, including your brain. [4]    There are many benefits to exercise. Not only does it help reduce the symptoms of fatigue (which exacerbates cognitive processing) exercise encourages your body to release endorphins – often called ‘feel good hormones’. When released, endorphins can lift your mood and sense of well-being.  Easing stress and elevating mood may also ease chemobrain symptoms.

Keep your mind active

Just as physical activity helps keep your body in shape, mentally stimulating activities help keep your brain in shape too. Doing crosswords, sudoku and puzzles will help to keep your mind exercised. You may also like to try computer pro­grams that are designed to improve memory and attention span.

Practice mindfulness meditation

Research has shown that practicing mindfulness can improve memory recall in just eight weeks. Meditation has also been shown to improve standardized test scores and working memory abilities after just two weeks. [5]

Eat more berries

More research is needed in this area, but some studies show that phytochemical-rich foods, such as blueberries, are effective at reversing age-related deficits in memory. [6] Blueberries are a major source of flavonoids, in particular anthocyanins and flavanols. Although the precise mechanisms by which these plant-derived molecules affect the brain are unknown, they have been shown to cross the blood brain barrier after dietary intake. It’s believed that they exert their effects on learning and memory by enhancing existing neuronal (brain cell) connections, improving cellular communications and stimulating neuronal regeneration.

Ten Tips to Help You Cope With Chemobrain

Below you’ll find a list of everyday self-help tips which will help restore your confidence at work and in social situations when you feel brain fog descend.

  1. Lists are your friend. Write daily lists about the errands you need to run, things you need to buy and where you have left important things.
  2. Carry a notebook with you to keep track of daily activities and things you want to remember. Make use of daily planners, wall planners, smart phones, and other organizers.
  3. Put sticky notes as reminders in places where you will easily see them.
  4. Say information you want to remember out loud five or six times to help fix it in your memory.
  5. Try linking a visual image with the information you want to remember.
  6. Leave a message on your answering machine or set an alert on your phone to remind yourself of something important.
  7. Get in the habit of keeping everyday items like your keys and cell phone in a regular place for easy retrieval, for example a basket or table by your front door.
  8. Avoid trying to do too many things at the same time. Concentrate on one task at a time and don’t multitask. 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.
  9. Plan ahead. List your 3 most important tasks to deal with the night before, so you can hit the ground running the next day.
  10. Do the most difficult tasks of the day first thing when you are most alert.  If a task is too big to complete in one day, divide it into smaller tasks to be spread out over several days.

When To Seek Further Support

For most patients, chemobrain improves within a year after completing chemotherapy, although around 10-20% of people may have long-term effects even ten years after treatment. However, these side effects should be stable. If you have tried self-help techniques but the symptoms are not improving, you should speak with your doctor who may refer you to a neuropsychologist.

Neuropsychologists are psychologists with special training that prepares them to help people experiencing trouble in areas such as attention, new learning, organization and memory. A neuropsychologist will do a complete evaluation and determine if there are any treatable problems such as depression, anxiety, and fatigue.  It’s important to make sure you’re receiving treatment for any depression, anxiety, or sleep problems. Make sure you also have had your thyroid, vitamin D and B12 levels checked.

Chemobrain is a frustrating side-effect of treatment and a reminder that cancer isn’t done with us when treatment ends. It’s important to know that there is help available. Don’t ever feel you are alone when it comes to dealing with the ongoing effects of cancer. Talk to your doctor and reach out to your online patient community for support and practical tips on coping with chemobrain.


References

[1] Kesler, S.R. et al. Prefrontal Cortex and Executive Function Impairments in Primary Breast Cancer, Arch Neurol. 2011;68(11):1447-1453

[2] Karin Sieger

[3] Born, J., Rasch, B., & Gais, S. (2006). Sleep to Remember. The Neuroscientist, 12(5), 410–424. 

[4] Erickson, K.I, et al. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Feb 2011, 108 (7) 3017-3022.

[5] Mrazek, M. D., Franklin, M. S., Phillips, D. T., Baird, B., & Schooler, J. W. (2013). Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering. Psychological Science, 24(5), 776–781.

[6] The Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry. “Getting Forgetful? Then Blueberries May Hold The Key.” ScienceDaily. 12 April 2008.

 

 

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!