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Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Its Many Shades of Pink (and Blue)

We are more than half-way through Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) – impossible to miss given the pink ribbon avalanche that arrives each Fall. While there is no denying that BCAM has played a significant role over the past two decades in raising public awareness of breast cancer, there is nevertheless growing criticism of its off-balance approach to awareness-raising, with many key messages becoming lost in a sea of “pink-washing.” 

“BCAM is a 2-sided coin in our community,” states Jean Rowe, Director of Support and Provider Engagement at The Young Survival Coalition. On the one hand, she explains, celebrating successful treatment outcomes and raising awareness is important, but “on the other side, expectations that come with the pink ribbon in October can be overwhelming, isolating, infuriating and bewildering.” 

The pink ribbon, so long a symbol of breast cancer awareness and support, has become for many a symbol of what’s missing from the BCAM narrative.  When I first pinned a pink ribbon on myself,  I was newly diagnosed with breast cancer. Back then, I felt that wearing a ribbon was a symbol of solidarity, and I wore it proudly. Looking back, I now see that my view of breast cancer was one-dimensional. Standing today on the other side of cancer I see a broader picture, a richer landscape of many shades beyond pink.

A Whiter Shade of Breast Cancer

For Siobhan Freeney breast cancer is not pink. “When I see pink I’m reminded of all things feminine, “ she says. “My delayed breast cancer diagnosis resulted in a mastectomy. There’s nothing feminine or pink about that. I see breast cancer as the elusive ‘snowball in a snowstorm’ because my breast cancer, all seven centimeters of it, was missed on consecutive mammogram screenings. I know now that I had extremely dense breasts, this caused a masking effect – white on white.”

Breast Cancer Shaded Blue

Much of the criticism of BCAM centers on breast cancer campaigns which over-sexualize the disease, equating breasts with womanhood and femininity. Rod Ritchie, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, points out that “October is a bad time for male breast cancer survivors because the trivialization and sexualization of the disease by the pink charities reinforces public awareness that breast cancer is gender specific.  Since there’s little attempt to educate men that they need to be aware of symptoms too, we are diagnosed later and have a poorer prognosis.” 

Ritchie suggests “adding some blue to the pink, encouraging research on us, and screening those with a genetic propensity. Reminding the community that this is a genderless disease will give us a chance to receive an early diagnosis and therefore a better prognosis. We deserve equality.”

Metastatic Breast Cancer: The Other Side of BCAM

Learning about metastatic breast cancer (MBC, also called stage 4, secondary breast cancer (SBC) or advanced breast cancer) from online blogs and social media networks was revelatory for me. As Lisa de Ferrari points out, “although breast cancer has been commercialized and is often presented in a way that seems to minimize the seriousness of the disease, the reality is that deaths from this disease remain extremely high.”

MBC has been referred to as a story half-told, the other side of BCAM we don’t hear enough about. “Every Breast Cancer Awareness Month the huge focus is on awareness of primary disease. There has been little focus on secondary breast cancer and the only day for awareness is 13th October,“ points out Jo Taylor. “Awareness of SBC needs to be across the whole month.”

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

How To Honor All Sides of the BCAM Coin

This article is not meant in any way as a criticism of those for whom wearing a pink ribbon is  meaningful. I  am grateful that the original pink ribbon movement has brought breast cancer out of the dark ages when it was taboo to even mention the words “breast cancer” aloud.  However, time has moved on, and it is time to challenge the singular narrative of breast cancer as a female only disease wrapped up prettily in a pink ribbon. 

So to quote, Gayle A. Sulik, a medical sociologist, and author of Pink Ribbon Blues,  “this is not a condemnation of anyone who finds meaning in the ribbon or public events. It is a call to broaden the discussion, re-orient the cause toward prevention and life-saving research, and acknowledge the unintended consequences of commercialization, festive awareness activities, and the lack of evidence-based information that makes its way to the public.”

It’s important to honor your feelings and emotions at this time. If you want to celebrate BCAM, celebrate; if you want to sit out this month or use it as an opportunity to educate others in a different way, then do that. In the words of Rowe, “Everyone gets to experience BCAM the way in which they need and want to.”

However, I will add to this that whichever way you choose to honor this month, be more questioning. As MBC patient advocate Abigail Johnston says, “ask if the pink ribbon represents the community you are trying to reach before using it automatically. Be open to understanding that not everyone identifies with the same images and concepts.”

Perhaps consider wearing the more inclusive green and teal ribbon designed by METAvivor. To highlight the uniqueness of the disease and show its commonality with other stage 4 cancers, METAvivor designed a base ribbon of green and teal to represent metastasis. “Green represents the triumph of spring over winter, life over death, and symbolizes renewal, hope, and immortality while teal symbolizes healing and spirituality. The thin pink ribbon overlay signifies that the metastatic cancer originated in the breast.”

Also use this month as an opportunity to broaden your understanding of breast cancer awareness. In the words of Terri Coutee, founder of DiepCFoundation,  “Without the metastatic community, I cannot understand, learn, or appreciate their experience of living with breast cancer. The men in the breast cancer space who are living with or have been treated with this disease have amplified their voices over the years to level the breast cancer awareness campaign to let us all know, breast cancer does not discriminate.”

Above all, don’t let breast cancer awareness in all its many shades be for one month alone. “When I began my advocacy, I hopped on the October bandwagon to bring awareness to a disease that has affected me, my own family, and dear friends too often, “ says Terri. “ Now, I look at it as only one month out of a year we need to bring awareness to latest studies in oncology, clinical trials, surgical best practices, emotional recovery, support, all mixed in with a bit of gratitude for the friends I’ve made along the way and to mourn those I have lost.”

Patient Empowerment Revisited: Part 2

Welcome back to the second part of this discussion on patient empowerment. In Part 1 we looked at self-advocacy and the importance of having access to information which allows us to take a more active role in our care. We also looked at how a team-based, partnership approach to care – one in which the patient is respected as a person – facilitates a more empowering environment. 

In Part 2, we’ll look at the role of peer to empowerment and explore whether the term “empowerment” is even the right term to use. Finally, we’ll conclude with some thoughts on the need for systemic change and a shared vision to embed new solutions into healthcare systems and pathways.

Theme 5. Peer to peer empowerment

“Engagement with your community, bolsters our confidence with good information.” – Britt (@mewhinney). 

Information, knowledge and the confidence to become a more active participant in our care also develops from engagement with other patients.  As Conor describes it, “I find being part of patient groups empowering for so many things, including where to find information, other peoples experiences and above all, chatting with others who just understand.” 

Piarella Peralta de Wesseling (@piarellaperalta), Patient Advocacy Lead at Diaceutics, is unequivocal in her belief in the collective wisdom and power of patient communities. “It is not clinicians nor industry nor government who have empowered me as greatly as the community of empowered individuals themselves,” she says. “No one has greater urgency to get it right, to evaluate and decide what best fits our lives than us facing the very challenges of the disease. People come to me and my fellow patient advocates to ask very simple questions that in the end just have two purposes, feeling heard, share in the knowledge of the devastating news that they have learned they have cancer, be in solidarity and then to know how they can make the best decisions relevant to them.”

Theme 6. Is ‘empowerment’ the right term to use?

When crowdsourcing these comments, I received some push-back on the use of the term ‘empowerment.’  To quote Piarella, the term itself “creates a sense of power differential and that is perhaps intuitively contradictory to the notion that each human has a right to be autonomous and self-determined.”

Kristie Konsoer (@kkbadger1) agrees. “For me, empowerment means taking action/speaking up so I feel like I’m participating in and influencing my health care,” she explains. “I empower myself. Empowerment comes from within. An authority can’t give it to me, but we can work together toward the same goals.”

Here are some more quotes expressing similar viewpoints. 

“For what it’s worth I think patient empowerment is lacking. It implies patients need authority given to them by another. Patient rights seem more fitting. Patients have rights, and doctors and healthcare providers must ensure those are not infringed but are guaranteed.” Mark Samber (@MarkMyWords67).

“I cringe at the term! Despite its well-meaning origins, it’s a conversation stopper within our hierarchy of medicine.” – Carolyn Thomas (@heartsisters).

“Empowerment is a convenient shorthand that smacks of condescension, as if someone is deigning to award me some of their power when I presumably have little or none. How about respecting patients and taking our input seriously. We can strengthen our own power by exercising it.” – Nancy Seibel (@nancylseibel).

“Like everything, thoughts on this evolve. #Patientsinvolved means patients can be as passive or pro-active as they like, but it also means they are heard and asked about their thoughts and needs. Empowerment perhaps is self-empowerment. Not that patients are ‘given power’?” Sharon Thompson (@sharontwriter).

“I think patients like to ‘feel’ empowered, because the word connotes being engaged, participatory and pro-active. At the same time it can be overused, although when people say they’re empowered by ‘xyz’, there’s ‘power’ in that.” – Cathy Leman (@dammadbrstcancr).

“Patient empowerment is a concept I believe in, but as a patient activist, I find the term somewhat passive. I’m also concerned that power is not something men diagnosed with breast cancer feel they have. Faced with a labyrinth of medical institutions and pink charities geared towards dealing with this predominantly female disease, those of us in the one percent cohort feel virtually powerless.” – Rod Ritchie (@malefitness).

“Not a big fan of the term because what exactly does it even mean? Empowered vs powerless, or what? Also, what empowers each of us varies so much as we are all unique. It’s another trendy buzz word. But if it works for some, that’s fine too.” – Nancy Stordahl (@nancyspoint).

“I use the word ‘empower’ in my mission statement but only believe it is worthy of a mission statement or used anytime when ACTION is taken. A word is empty without the tools/resources to use it.” – Terri Coutee (@6state).

Theme 7. Empowerment requires a systemic approach

The final theme centered around the need for a systemic shift in how patients are treated in the healthcare system.  As Julia (@bccww) put it, “empowerment would be health care services being appropriately funded and accessible to enable those with serious/long term chronic conditions to live well. It’s about being enabled (for me) to manage my long term health conditions, live well with them but with access to support and/or treatment (if I need it) to keep on course.”

Elizabeth Nade (@elizabethnade11), who prefers the term “patient activism”, points out, “I am already empowered. I am seeking change to the current healthcare model because it is insensitive and unresponsive to the needs of patients and their families. I want to challenge the relationship to affect change.”

Similarly, Patty Spears (@paspeers88), emphasises the need for systemic change. “I don’t like the term and how it’s usually used. Even unempowered patients need good quality care, not just empowered patients.  Rather let’s ensure equal and high quality care for ALL patients. Putting the burden on the patient (to be empowered) is a bad idea in my book.”

Cardiologist, David Lee Scher MD (@dlschermd), adds the physician voice to the discussion. “Education, awareness and tools are what is needed for patients to self-manage chronic diseases and navigate the healthcare system,” he says. “What you call it doesn’t matter. Labels and phrases (engagement, etc) in healthcare have yet to translate to better care.”

A Shared Vision

To conclude this discussion, I’m turning to Liz Ashall Payne (LizAshallPayne), CEO and Co-Founder @OrchaHealth, a passionate advocate for healthcare  transformation through digital and mhealth.  I  really like what she has to say about working together on a shared vision that puts the patient at the center of the entire healthcare ecosystem. 

“To truly support ‘patient empowerment’ we have to think far broader than the patient, we must also make sure we are empowering those that sit around the patient. 

We need to empower Health Care systems to be incentivised to support this vital work.

We must educate and empower our health care workforce to know how to empower patients 

We must support innovators to know what patients’ needs are, and how to embed new solutions into healthcare systems and pathways.

Above all we must COLLABORATE with a shared vision. 

The current COVID crisis has really brought the whole system together to drive digital uptake amongst our patients and populations, but we are not finished, we must do more, and there has never been a better time to do so.”

Patient Empowerment Revisited: What Does It Truly Mean To Patients?

Language is constantly evolving in our everyday lives. This is also true of the language we use to describe patienthood. The words we use color how we view our world and how the world perceives us as patients. 

‘Empowerment’ is one of those words frequently attached to patients.  The term is most often used to emphasize the value of having patients assert greater control over their health care.

In a previous post, I set out to explore what it means to be an empowered patient from the perspective of patients themselves. I outlined seven essential facilitators of patient empowerment, from access to information, to health and digital literacy.  Now, two years later, I want to revisit the theme of patient empowerment to investigate what, if anything, has changed in the interim. 

Is patient empowerment still a concept that resonates with patients? 

Reaching out to my online network of patient advocates I received an overwhelming response to this question.  The following quotes, which I’ve synthesised around the most common themes, demonstrate a rich source of insight. Some of the responses you may find surprising as they offer a new perspective on the evolving nature of what it is to be a patient in today’s connected world. Others I feel sure will resonate. Take some time to reflect on what it means to you to be engaged, empowered and enabled in your own care and that of your loved ones. As always feel free to share your thoughts on this topic with the wider community via PEN’s social media channels. 

7 Themes Related To Patient Empowerment

  1. Agency, self advocacy and control
  2. Information, choices and shared decision making
  3. Partnership and a team based approach to patient care
  4. Respect, understanding and compassion
  5. Peer to peer empowerment
  6. Is ‘empowerment’ the right term to use?
  7. Empowerment requires a systemic approach

As there is so much to cover across this topic I’ve split the discussion into two parts. In this first part we will look at Themes 1 – 4. 

Theme 1. Agency, self advocacy and control

On your health journey, care is the vehicle – why not take the wheel?” – Darren Myles (@DRMJunior).

The first theme to emerge centers around a sense of self-advocacy and taking ownership of our own care. Certified Cancer Coach and Executive Director of Emerald Heart Cancer Foundation, Elyn Jacobs (@elynjacobs) considers empowerment as something that is “essential to successfully navigate the cancer journey. As an empowered individual, you can take the path of action and self-advocacy.”

Laurie Reed (@lreedsbooks) also believes being “empowered means recognizing that you have the ability and the right to act on your own behalf. Empowered means taking ownership of the power to effect change for your health and how healthcare is delivered.”

Brain Cancer Babe (@braincancerbabe) sees empowerment “ as taking control for yourself and of yourself.”

Liz Johnson (@wired4story) who calls herself “a career soldier of cancer”,  views the ability to “have some control in dealing with a disease that is completely beyond my control” as essential to her survival. “I’m the coach of my healthcare team (and policy makers and researchers) And all that goes into my survival,” she says. 

Lily Collison (@lilycollison), the mother of a son with Cerebral Palsy (CP), says that taking a more active role in the management of their condition, pushes patients beyond “being recipients of care.” 

Doing so is a proactive move, a term favoured by two-times breast cancer survivor, Georgina Tankard (@flowersorcakes) and Victoria (@terrortoria), founder of the Younger Breast Cancer Network (@YBCN_UK). 

“In the past, perhaps patients were expected to do as they were told. Nowadays with so many more options and so much information, patients can reasonably play a key role in decisions regarding their care,“ points out MS patient, Conor Kerley (@conorkerley). 

Theme 2. Information, choices and shared decision making

“Empowerment is having choices and being seen as the human at the centre of your care.” – Julia (@BCCWW).

Choice emerges as another central theme related to agency and control.  “Choice gives us that feeling of empowerment, “ says Elyn Jacobs, “it allows us to regain the much-needed control we somehow lost when we heard “You have cancer.” If you do not know your options, you do not have any. Empowerment comes from knowing your options, and obtaining the necessary information is critical to make the right choices for you, and for your cancer.”

As Elyn highlights, choice is informed by access to good, reliable information. In the words of cancer patient, Chris Lewis (@christheeagle1) “I need the information so that I can make informed judgments about my life.” 

How can patients be empowered if they don’t understand their condition?” asks Lily, who was amazed to read that a “2016 survey of 1,214 parents and caregivers of children with CP found that they judged available medical information to be inadequate to guide their decision-making. Another piece of research found that the greatest area of unmet need reported by young adults with CP was information.”

Having knowledge is one thing, but it’s the ability to act upon that information that is a key driver of empowerment. To quote Conor, “knowledge is power but only if that knowledge is acted upon.” 

For that to happen, the right environment needs to be facilitated around the patient. This leads us onto our next theme. 

Theme 3. Partnership and a team based approach to patient care

“Whether it’s called empowerment or involvement, the patient needs to feel they are part of the team”  – Noreen (@hiberniaroots).

Many spoke about the importance of a team-based, partnership approach to their care. As Stage IV TNBC patient advocate, Janice Cowden (@JaniceTNBCmets) explains, “I feel empowered through knowledge about my disease, as well as experiencing a team approach, or partnership, with my oncologist in planning my care.”

For caregiver, Wendy Morton (@wendyjanemorton) it’s important that “there is a partnership between ourselves and the care team. Also a genuine adherence to shared and thoughtful decision-making.”

In this team-based approach, patients still rely on their healthcare providers to actively engage with them.   “It’s still very much up to our doctors to let us know what types of options are out there and include us in decisions about how to get there,” emphasizes metastatic breast cancer patient, Meredith Kuiik  (@MeredithKulik).

For Susan Rudick (@susanruddick1), “the word isn’t as important as the patient being engaged and knowledgeable and most importantly being an integral member of the healthcare team when possible.”

Theme 4. Respect, understanding and compassion

“As a patient it’s a matter of LISTENING to us. Our voices are the power we have. What’s wrong doesn’t always show up in a diagnostic test or a scan. It’s our entire self – physical, emotional, psychological and the voice of the patient  is our empowerment” – Ilene Kaminsky (@ilenealizah).

Achieving this approach requires a willingness on the part of healthcare providers to create a space in which patients can ask questions and feel they are being heard on a human level.

In the words of breast cancer survivor Jen Douglas (@MMEJendouglas), it’s not just about understanding the diagnosis, but also having the opportunity “to ask questions and having providers who will take my concerns seriously.”

Metastatic breast cancer patient, Keillie (@LehrKellie) agrees. “Patient empowerment means I can ask questions to my oncologist and she will listen and discuss what I am asking. When I tell her of a side effect, she believes me even if it is not on the list of top side effects of that chemotherapy drug.”

Nancy Seibel (@nancylseibel) sums it up by saying, “I think it’s about respect, dignity and compassion on the part of healthcare professionals and patients. I can’t express in a single tweet how routine hospital and medical practices can humiliate and challenge one’s sense of self as a human worthy of respect.”  

As Elyn points out, “empowerment is hindered when a doctor does not respect the patient’s right to be part of the decision making or instills fear to obtain compliance. You are not just a patient, someone who is expected to passively accept the treatment plan being offered; you are a person, a person with choices.”

Being respected in this way has a circular effect, as Conor demonstrates by saying, “Personally, I believe that as I educated myself and became more empowered, that the attitude of my healthcare team towards me as a young adult changed and I was given more respect. This led to more shared decisions regarding my care and in turn led to me becoming more confident and feeling more empowered!”

It’s important to remember, in the words of Victoria, that “not every patient is the same and clinicians should adapt depending on an individual’s needs.” Patient advocate Barbara Jacoby (@letlifehappen) cautions that we mustn’t forget the cohort of patients who lack the knowledge and skills to become more informed in their care.  “I believe that it then becomes incumbent upon the medical team members to take the time to share with the patient and their caregiver, or other trusted person who can accompany them to their appointments, to explain proposed treatments and options and why such a course is considered to be the best for this individual person,” says Barbara. “Even if the person does not seem to want to be vested in their own decisions, the respect that the patient is given by the doctor builds a level of trust and confidence. This allows the patient to understand that they really matter and are seen as something more than another disease that needs to be treated. Knowing that you matter as a person will enhance the doctor/patient relationship and this automatically empowers the person to want to do their best.”

To conclude Part 1 of this discussion on patient empowerment I want to leave the final word to cancer patient advocate (@GraceCordovano).

Patient empowerment is often framed in the context of:

  1. Activating an individual patient, to essentially change their behavior to better themselves
  2. The doctor-patient relationship, with specific actions that could be done or incorporated to strengthen the interactions, trust, and clinical encounters.

A person’s health and pursuit of their best life with a diagnosis is so much bigger than these 2 traditionally referenced settings. Patients need to also be best supported to hack the health care ecosystem, to navigate its many silos and fragmented workflows, and to exceed the barriers that stand in the way of patients getting the care and resources they need to live their best life where they are.”

Join me for Part 2 of this discussion, where we will take a closer look at the role of peer-to-peer networks in building communities of information and support. I will also be asking if “empowerment” is an outdated concept.  Should we even be using the term in our discussions?   Join me for more answers to this question and further rich insights in Part 2. 

Quotation Inspiration: 10 Quotes to Inspire, Motivate and Uplift Cancer Patients

This month, I thought we could all do with a little quotation inspiration. When you’re dealing with cancer, some inspiring words can be just the thing to give you a daily lift.

Note this is not the same as saying that “thinking positive” is the best way to deal with cancer. While for some, a positive thinking mindset can help them cope, for many others, the tyrannical think positive brigade only makes us feel worse.

Thinking back on my own cancer experience, there were certain messages of hope and inspiration that I received which help bring some much-needed perspective to my situation.

So with the help of our community, I’ve compiled the following quotes and messages to inspire and uplift you today.


Julia (@juliabarnickle), turns to her own words of wisdom to get her through her various cancer experiences over the past twelve years. In particular this one: “Nothing in Life is worth worrying about.”

 

Nancy (@nancyspoint) also looks to her own words for motivation. “Be real. Be you. It’s enough,” she says.

 

Take a leaf out of Ilene’s (@ilenealizah) quotebook. “When inspiration moves to another neighborhood, I often reference poetry, especially Mary Oliver and Maya Angelou (And Still I Rise)” she says. “Yet I shiver in the cool winds of words whispered in history, my mind running wild as I open up my quotebook (notebook of quotes)‘ to add or to discover. I picked these randomly on purpose, and in no quantitative or qualitative importance of order:

 

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou

 

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”— Martin Luther King Jr.

 

“The knack of flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” —Douglas Adams

 

Sarah (@he4dgirl) shares with us a three-word quote from CS Lewis – one that I have turned to often myself: “Courage, dear heart.”

 

Another one of my favorites is from the author, Cheryl Strayed, who writes: “The place of true healing is a fierce place. It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have to work really, really, really hard to get there, but you can do it. You’re a woman who can travel that far.”

 

Finally take inspiration from Cancer biologist, Triona (@NiTriona) and pass on some encouragement to another person today. Triona shares these words from poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue (Eternal Echoes) to remind us of the gift that encouragement bestows.

 

“One of the most beautiful gifts in the world is the gift of encouragement. When someone encourages you, that person helps you over a threshold you might otherwise never have crossed on your own.”

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Cancer is a disease; not a military campaign

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

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

Cancer isn’t a game of winners and losers

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

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

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

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

When words blame

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

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

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

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

Embracing a fighting spirit can work for some patients

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

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

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

Wrapping Up

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

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

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

Patient Participation in Research: Towards Meaningful Engagement

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

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

What is patient participation in research?

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

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

Why should you engage in health research?

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

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

How can you get engaged in research?

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

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


Research Stage 

Level of Involvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Optimize Your Social Profiles

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Schedule Your Social Media Posts

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

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

4. Curate Content

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

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

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

5. Create Visual Impact

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

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

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

6. Use Relevant Hashtags

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

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

7. Live-Report Conferences and Events

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

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

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

8. Take Part In Twitter Chats

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

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

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

9. Create a YouTube Channel

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

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

10. Maintain a Consistent Content Creation and Promotion Schedule

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

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

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

Here’s to your social media success!

 

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

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

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

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

1. Get Clarity on Your Direction

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

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

2. Update Your Resume

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

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

3. Develop Your Network

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

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

4. Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile

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

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

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

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

5. Mind Your Digital Footprint

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

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

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

6. Handling the Job Interview

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

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

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

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

7. Considering a Career Change

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

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

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

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

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