No right way through cancer

I often say that there’s no single right way through cancer. What do I mean by that? Some people aggressively treat their cancers with surgery and chemotherapy long past the time that others would have switched to comfort measures. Some people keep their cancer diagnosis a secret from nearly everyone while others make it a



Cancer on your own terms

I once wrote a column about people who go through cancer with exceptional grace. A few readers said that the column made them angry. The comments were along the lines of, “I’m dealing with a crappy disease and you want me to do that gracefully? Well, phooey on that and phooey on you.” I’m always



The post-treatment blahs

For many people the months following cancer treatment are more difficult than the treatment itself. During treatment, your “job” is to be in treatment. You’re busy with appointments and you see the same doctors and nurses almost every week. At the same time, friends bring you meals, family members take on extra duties, and you’re



Practical advice for getting second opinions

A woman recently diagnosed with cancer stopped by our office to say that she’s heard that it’s important to obtain second opinions from major cancer centers and to assemble a team of experts to provide her treatment. She asked, “How the hell do I do that?” Cancer guidebooks are full of grandiose suggestions like “assemble



Cancer-Related Fatigue

When people think about the side effects of cancer treatment, they usually think about hair loss (which is common with some types of chemotherapy), and nausea (which is not nearly as common as it used to be). But in my experience, fatigue is the side effect that’s most universal and least appreciated. Fatigue is different



Decision-making with cancer

Everyone diagnosed with cancer has decisions to make. What type of treatment? Where to have treatment? Should the cancer even be treated? The question isn’t what’s best. Rather, the question is what’s best for you. After working with people making these decisions for the past several years, I’ve found that some general guidelines can be helpful:



Making friends with your oncologist

An oncologist once remarked to me that her patients routinely told her about their personal lives – like they were trying to strike up friendships. I can understand this. It’s not that patients expect their oncologists to invite them over for dinner, but there is a desire to make some sort of human connection. I’m



Connecting cancer scientists and cancer patients

Most cancer research begins in laboratories where scientists seek to understand why normal cells mutate into cancer cells and then travel, wreaking havoc, elsewhere in the body. These basic scientists are generally more familiar with test tubes than with cancer patients. Nationally, there’s growing interest in building partnerships between scientists and patients. For example, review



Why do engineers study cancer?

You probably know that cancer research is routinely done by biologists, but you might be surprised to learn that engineers increasingly contribute to our understanding and treatment of this disease. Here are some examples: Cancer cells migrate through the body to take root in distant organs. These cells have to survive the “flowing river” of



Your doctor can’t read your mind

In the cancer world, patients often differ on what they want to hear from their doctors. Here are some examples: Some patients want to know – in detail – the various pros and cons of every treatment option, while other patients just want to know what the doctor thinks is best. Some patients want to



Nice people abound in the cancer world

One of the volunteers at the Cancer Resource Center recently said to me, “Every person I meet with cancer is nice.” It’s an interesting observation and one that other volunteers have made as well. I’ve been in the cancer world for more than 20 years and I think it’s generally true. Not because nice people



Good care is a partnership between patient and doctor

I spend much of my time helping seriously ill patients navigate the health care system. As a result, I’m constantly talking with patients about their interactions with doctors and other health professionals. Although each encounter is unique, I’m increasingly aware of some universal truths that contribute to good patient-doctor encounters. Not surprisingly, good encounters require



Clinical trials and cancer

People diagnosed with cancer often wonder if they should participate in a clinical trial. When someone asks for my opinion, I begin by saying that clinical trials are essential for the advancement of medicine. For example, one clinical trial found that women with early-stage breast cancer did just as well after a lumpectomy (followed by



A field guide to family members of cancer patients

There are a variety of styles that spouses and other close family members adopt to help a family member with cancer. Here are several negative styles that I’ve observed through the years as well as the style that is most likely to be helpful. Combatants are always looking to pick a fight, often with doctors



Parking lot moments after a cancer diagnosis

You’re initially stunned when you hear the words, “You have cancer.” Your brain freezes and things are a blur for at least a few minutes. A friend recently asked me what went through my mind once the initial numbness began to fade. For me, this was when I had checked out of the doctor’s office



Cancer and the holidays

The first few months of living with cancer are weird. What seems especially unsettling is that life goes on normally around you, but YOU HAVE CANCER. Your life is suddenly different but everyone else is carrying on like they always do. This sensation is even more intense during the holiday season. There are traditions and



Value your own story

I recently spoke with a group in Binghamton, NY about coping with and communicating about cancer. One attendee suggested that I add the importance of valuing our individual cancer stories. What a terrific idea. Each person who’s been through cancer (either as a patient or a caretaker) has a unique story. For many of us,



How faith communities serve those with cancer

I recently had the good fortune of attending a couple of church services in rural communities near Ithaca in order to speak about the work of the Cancer Resource Center. It reminded me that churches, synagogues, mosques, and other faith communities are often the primary sources of support for people going through cancer. And, as



Chemo nurses and radiation therapists

Chemotherapy nurses and radiation therapists provide much of the hands-on care to cancer patients. As a result, these professionals have a profound impact on the quality of care that patients receive. I attend a weekly breakfast club for guys who have had cancer. I asked them to describe the qualities in a chemo nurse or



Stopping treatment is not giving up

I sometimes hear from individuals with advanced cancer who continue with aggressive treatment because their loved ones exhort them to “not give up.” Some family members go so far as to say that stopping treatment is the same as committing suicide. It’s not. I wish that we could reframe this discussion because when people choose



Don’t look back

It is easy to second guess yourself when you have cancer. It can take many forms: I wouldn’t have cancer if I had taken better care of myself. I should have gone to the doctor sooner. I should have chosen “watchful waiting” instead of aggressive treatment. Nearly everyone with cancer wonders if they would be



Helping those we don’t like

In my columns, I often suggest practical ways to help people with cancer. Giving support to nice people is relatively easy. You want to bring them soup and give them a hug. But contrary to what you see in the movies, not everyone with cancer is angelic. Some of us are cranky. Others are downright



One take on nontraditional cancer therapies

People often fall into two camps regarding the usefulness of nontraditional cancer therapies. Some people are irrationally exuberant in their support of these therapies: “This dandelion soup is going to cure my cancer!” Others are completely dismissive. As is usually the case, a balanced perspective is more sensible than either extreme. Nontraditional therapies include acupuncture,



It all changed overnight

If your spouse or partner is diagnosed with cancer, your life changes. You worry about the future and your days are filled with appointments, tasks, and caregiving. If your spouse or partner is diagnosed with advanced cancer, your life changes even more radically. As one man told me, “It all changed overnight.” His wife, by



Adjusting To The New Normal

“The new normal” is a phrase used to describe how life changes for some people who have been through cancer. Here are some examples: A man treated for oral cancer who can no longer taste many foods. A woman treated for breast cancer whose arm is permanently swollen. A man treated for colorectal cancer who



We have cranky days

A woman going through cancer treatment was having a bad day. She was miserable and her friends were offering words of encouragement along the lines of, “You’ll feel better tomorrow.” She told me that the encouragement didn’t help. She said that it was like wearing cold, wet clothes. Hearing that she’ll soon have warm, dry



Newly diagnosed with cancer

The first few days following a cancer diagnosis are like riding on top of a speeding train. You’re hanging on for dear life and can’t quite see what’s ahead. Although every situation is somewhat different, this is what I generally suggest: Focus on one step at a time. If you are having a biopsy next



In Memory of Carol John

Carol Knight John died last week. She had cancer, but she never let cancer define her. She was always participating in triathlons, climbing mountains or moving boulders in someone’s garden. I marveled at her energy and her ability to get so much life out of each day. Her level of activity was beyond what’s typical



The Power of a Cancer Support Group

People with cancer share differently within a cancer support group as compared to how they share with their family and friends. One woman recently told me that when she shares her cancer diagnosis with friends, the friends often say something like, “You’re going to be ok, right?” She went on to say, “In my support



Waiting for the Oncologist’s Call

You know that you’re supposed to silence your cell phone when you’re in a meeting. Exceptions are permitted if it’s truly important, and few calls are more important than calls from your oncologist. During support groups at the Cancer Resource Center, it is not unusual for a person to jump up from the table to