Monday, December 17, 2012

Knowing What to Expect

One of the worst parts of the entire experience of having cancer is the initial feeling of not knowing what to expect. Physicians can only treat the physical part of the disease, and yet the stress and fear that come along with hearing those three words, "You have cancer." can be as devastating to a person's mental health as the actual disease is to their body.

Our social workers strive to alleviate some of that initial fear simply by allowing patients to share their concerns, and working to alleviate as many as they can. When a patient meets our social workers at their first visit with their oncologist, they are told that we are available to help with financial needs, prescription payments, transportation, Spanish interpretation, and emotional support. Some patients don't need to access our assistance programs, others are provided with several kinds of support. Some patients are relieved just to know we are here if the time comes that they do need us.

Here are some tips to help prepare a patient for their journey, compiled from an article published by Caring4Cancer.

Once a patient has been diagnosed, they should learn as much as they can about their diagnosis and type of cancer. Knowing what they are dealing with can help them ask the right questions of physicians and other medical professionals, and understand their treatment plan. For a list of questions to ask your doctor, follow this link.

After diagnosis, many patients undergo testing and scans to determine whether the cancer has spread to any other part of their body. This helps the medical team determine the stage of their cancer and the proper course of treatment. Some tests you may encounter include:

Biopsy: A biopsy is one of the most important cancer diagnostic tests. A small sample of tissue is removed for examination under a microscope by a specially trained doctor called a pathologist, who can tell if these cells are cancerous (or precancerous). A biopsy can be done surgically or with a needle while the patient is awake.

Tumor Marker Tests: Tumor markers are substances (usually proteins) produced by cancer cells or other cells in the body that turn up in unusual amounts in your blood, urine, or tissues. Although they may be used to help diagnose cancer, monitor the effect of treatment, and watch for a recurrence, they can also occasionally be high in people without cancer.

Complete Blood Count (also known as a CBC): The information a CBC provides can make a difference in a patient's treatment. It measures amounts of the three types of blood cells: red, white and platelets. Patients will probably have a CBC test done each time they visit their oncologist so the doctor can track the effects of treatment. Low red blood cells can lead to anemia and fatigue. Low white blood cells increase your risk for infection. Low platelet count can increase a patient's risk of bleeding because the platelets are the component in your blood that initiates clotting.

Good communication between the patient and the health care professionals who will be treating them will be the best line of defense against the feelings of anxiety that can accompany cancer treatment. If possible, patients should take a friend or close family member with them to appointments with their oncologist. Having someone else there can not only alleviate some of the patient's stress, but can help them remember things said and questions asked. Carrying a small notebook is a good idea as well, to record notes they might refer to later.

If a patient is already managing other conditions with their primary care physician, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, they should continue to maintain that relationship. The oncologists involved in a patient's cancer treatment will only be managing the cancer, and will not be keeping up with other conditions that might be affected by their treatment.

The journey through cancer treatment can be frustrating and confusing, but information and support can lessen the anxiety and give patients the tools they need to navigate it successfully.

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