Health and Healing

Achieving better health and optimal healing.

Help Getting Through Cancer

What cancer survivors say helped them the most as they went through treatment.

Let me begin this new blog for Psychology Today by introducing myself. I'm a Harvard doctor whose work focuses on helping people to recover from injuries and illnesses. I'm a medical doctor (M.D.) and have post-medical school training in a small specialty that many people haven't heard of called Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R). Doctors who specialize in this field of medicine are called physiatrists.

Though I treat people will all kinds of injuries and illnesses (from sprained ankles to strokes), some of my work is focused on helping cancer survivors recover from what are often very toxic treatments. In fact, I am a breast cancer survivor and have written a couple of books specifically for cancer survivors. One is titled After Cancer Treatment: Heal Faster, Better, Stronger and the other book, just released by the American Cancer Society, is called What Helped Get Me Through: Cancer Survivors Share Wisdom and Hope.

Since this is the last day of October (yes, it's Halloween, and I'll be taking my kids trick or treating!) and thus the end of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I'll focus this blog on what the survivors I interviewed for my new book told me really made a difference to them as they went through cancer treatment. If you know someone who is going through cancer treatment and you really want to help him or her, then here are some suggestions:

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1. Your support, no matter how you give it, is appreciated. Whether you write cards or offer prayers or give someone a hug or a meal or anything else, the survivors I interviewed said it all helped. 

2. The more specific you can be in your offers to help, the better. "Let me know if I can help you" is not nearly as helpful as "I'm raking my leaves this afternoon and will stop by to rake yours, too" or "I'm picking my daughter from soccer practice and can bring your daughter home, too." What people said over and over is that their friends and loved ones were already doing so much, they didn't feel comfortable asking for more. So, if you can offer specific help, the person who's ill won't have to ask.

3. Parents often appreciated help for their children more than they wanted it for themselves. Anything people did to help their children, especially things like a fun play date, was very meaningful.

4. I was interested to hear about new twists on old themes. Of course we all know that meals help a family in distress, but one woman wrote about how her friend put a basket on the porch so that people could drop off meals without interrupting the family's dinner hour. And, then the empty dishes could be placed back in the basket, so the family wouldn't have to worry about returning them.

5. One of my favorite tips comes from a Harvard colleague, Dr. Paula Rauch, who is the co-author of the book Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent is Sick. Dr. Rauch, a psychiatrist, tells people to appoint a "Minister of Information" and a "Captain of Kindness." The Minister of Information is someone you trust to give out as much information to the people you want to keep informed. This way, you don't have to keep repeating medical news over and over. The Captain of Kindness organizes the well wishers and is able to ask people who want to help for things like financial assistance for groceries. When someone approaches the person who's ill or a family member asking for information or wanting to know how she can help, then she can be directed to either the Minister or the Captain.

I'll be writing about a lot of different health and healing issues. If you have specific topics or suggestions, let me know!

 

Julie K. Silver, M.D., is an assistant professor in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School.

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