Monday Medical: How to talk about cancer

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Living with cancer can cause fear, isolation, loneliness and sadness. A new program at Yampa Valley Medical Center seeks to change that spiral and redirect energy toward healing.

Whole Person Wellness, a free monthly get-together for cancer patients, tackles tough topics and offers new ways to think about the challenges that cancer deals out.

“We want to make the cancer experience easier,” Integrated Health and Cancer Care counselor Sara Ross said. “Sessions are led by professionals here at Yampa Valley Medical Center and community members who have cancer certifications, experience and a zeal for helping people.”

Although it is not always easy to break down the walls of silence that often grow along with cancer, participants in the June 21 Whole Person Wellness session learned how to do that in a healthy, assertive way.

Led by YVMC medical social worker Carol Gordon, the discussion focused on empowered communications.

“It is important to talk about cancer, not stuff it inside,” Gordon said. “Effective, assertive communications with family and your health care team may not cure cancer, but they can heal a part of your life.

“Communicating can reduce tension and anxiety. It allows us to share our experience and energy with others.”

Talking about cancer doesn’t come naturally for everyone. One barrier is that most of us want to be liked. We don’t want to seem selfish, so we defer to other’s wishes and put ourselves last on the list.

Another impediment to good communication is “chemo brain,” a common side effect of chemotherapy treatment that fogs the memory, hinders decision-making and drains confidence.

Gender may play a role, Gordon added. Women tend to build and access emotional networks throughout their lives, while men may not feel as comfortable expressing emotions to friends or family.

Then there is the vulnerability factor.

“It’s not easy to express fear and vulnerability,” Gordon said. “Everyone feels vulnerable, but we don’t want to upset or hurt people so we tend to hide it.

“But if you don’t take a risk and show that you are vulnerable, you don’t get the closeness, which is especially important when living with cancer. It is better to use energy for healing than for fear.”

Even using the assertive techniques taught by Gordon, it is reasonable to expect that some discussions will not go smoothly. For example, participants said it can be frustrating to speak to physicians who are tuned in to treating cancer but not necessarily receptive to questions or comments.

“If that’s the case, go to someone else on your cancer team, perhaps a nurse, counselor or others who can help you understand and deal with the complexities of cancer,” Gordon advised. “People living with cancer need compassion, balance and celebrations in addition to accurate medical information.”

Ross said the Whole Person Wellness support group is open to anyone who has cancer, regardless of where they are receiving treatment. Cancer patients are invited to bring a friend or a family member.

Upcoming topics include emotions, chemo brain, journaling and mindfulness and meditation. A full schedule is available at www.yvmc.org/cancerwellness or by calling Ross at 970-875-2731.

“We want people to know that we are a resource for them. We can assist with practical problems, from financial issues to emotions,” Ross said. “Our goal is to help people make sense of what cancer means in their lives.”

Christine McKelvie is a writer/editor for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at christine.mckelvie@yvmc.org.

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