How to approach cancer patients

Ocotber 13, 2012

Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, clinical psychologist, physical therapist and author of "A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription For Happiness," ( came into our ABC7 studio to share tips. Of course the advice goes for patients of most cancers, not just breast cancer.

Dr. Lombardo's Tips:

A. The 3 things to avoid doing:
1. Don't avoid them because you don't know what to say
2. Don't offer advice (unless they ask)
3. Don't talk about the cancer all the time

B. The best question to ask your loved one:
"What do you need right now?"
Offer to be the "point person" for communicating treatments and organizing help.

C. What's advice for spouses in terms of intimacy?
This varies among individuals (some are more physical than others) and times (they may want more affection at some times and less at others).
Communication is key.
Hopefully you have a relationship where you can ask and respond verbally as to what each partner wants.
Also, look for non-verbal cues.
And remember a hesitancy to be intimate is not a reflection of how she feels about you.
There are many emotional and physical changes that can occur (at least temporarily) with breast cancer.
Focus on how you each can best be there for each other.

D. How should you start the conversation about end-of-life arrangements?
End-of-life conversations are important to have with your spouse, even if no physical ailments are present.
When you bring up the topic, try to do so when you both have some time to chat, uninterrupted.
If you can, bring it up at a time when stress levels are not so high so that you can have a rational and emotion-felt discussion.
Say something like, "When I first heard you had cancer, I was afraid I was going to lose you. Now we know that you are going to beat this cancer. It still made me realize there were certain things we never talked about, in case something happened to either one of us."

E. If a patient is reluctant about taking medication because of the side effects, or reluctant of taking care of herself, how should you make sure s/he does it?
The key the helping the individual is finding out why they are acting like this.
Is the medication causing unpleasant side effects?
If so, perhaps the doctor can change meds or offer another medication to counter the side effects.
Or maybe a change in the time the individual takes the medication (such as a night) can make a difference.

Is she not taking care of herself because she is feeling depressed or scared?
If so, help her address those issues and the self-care will get better.

F. How should kids be handled?
What you tell your child is dependent on their age and level of understanding.
It is important to remember that children have an active imagination.
And if you do not tell that at least some of what is going on, their imagination may present some pretty unpleasant and/or scary pictures in their head.
If mom is too tired to play, she can explain that to her children, "Mommy isn't feeling well today," and then look for things that she can do with her children.

Examples include snuggling together and reading a book or watching a movie, coloring, playing with play dough...

It is important to keep reinforcing the love that you have for your children, even if you are expressing it in different ways.
For example, if you are too tired to go to the soccer game, ask Dad or a friend to video tape it and then watch it with your child cheering him/her on as if you were there.

G. What YOU need to do to best help your loved one
You need to be the best YOU in order to assist a loved one.

This includes:
- Addressing your basic needs: good nutrition, sleep, exercise and fun
- Addressing your stress: proactively and reactively
- Addressing your own anxieties and fears: about cancer, sickness and even death (even if the prognosis is good, the word "cancer" often calls to mind our own mortality). Don't avoid these feelings because they can hurt your physical health, your emotional health and your interactions with others

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