The right support at the right time

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“I still remember when I was first diagnosed.  I knew immediately it was going to impact my life,” says Ginny Merringer.  “What if I died? Who would help my husband raise three, then school-aged boys?  I wanted desperately to live, see my sons grow up and generally enjoy the life I was living. Although I had tremendous support from family and friends, at the time, all I wanted to do was talk to someone who had been where I was going, that is, into treatment and a very uncertain future.”

“Cancer and cancer treatment impacts all aspects of the whole person –“one’s humanness – one’s family, one’s emotions and psyche, one’s physical self”, says Dr. Margaret Fitch. “More individuals are living longer through cancer. We want to help them live better too.”

Dr. Margaret Fitch and Dr. Jeff Myers co-lead the newly established Patient and Family Support Program at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre which aims to improve quality of life for patients and their loved ones by addressing their informational, emotional, psychological, physical, social and spiritual needs.

Dr. Fitch has the additional role of head of Oncology Nursing and together with Dr. Myers, a palliative care physician, they partner to provide leadership to this interprofessional group which includes social workers, registered dietitians, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech language pathologists, psychologists, a psychiatrist, a drug reimbursement specialist and administrative support staff.

“The professionals within our Program work alongside the oncology teams and focus on the needs of patients and caregivers that extend beyond treating the cancer itself” says Jeff. “Given the academic mandate of the Odette Cancer Centre, the Program’s research and education activities endeavor to inform our practice and serve to contribute to the educational experience of many health care professions’ trainees.”

“It is about having the right support available at the right time when the individual is ready,” says Margaret.

“When I was going through treatments,” says Nora Doran,”I had to learn to focus on ‘me’. I had always focused on work, my marriage, and other stuff, but I got to the point where I asked myself: what do I need to get through this? What kind of support would best fit me?”

Nora’s nurse, Anne, told her about the expertise of the professionals in the Program. “Though it felt a bit strange at first to ask for help about the how and why I was feeling a certain way, you realize these professionals have a different perspective,” says Nora. “They can offer you ways to cope. No question was trivial and there wasn’t a question they couldn’t help you find an answer to.”

After being diagnosed with colorectal cancer and having been treated, Peter Duffy developed liver cancer. His situation was serious and his medical and surgical oncologists felt he could benefit from a more unique but more risky treatment approach. “I was distraught. I didn’t understand — and I needed help,” recalls Rita, Peter’s wife. Working closely with the nurses, Alva, a social worker within the Program, facilitated more meetings to help Peter and Rita better understand what would happen. “She also offered us help on how to deal with our families’ questions,” says Rita, “and how to deliver the information. She and the care team helped steer our way.”

During surgery Peter’s gall bladder was removed to reduce the chance of cancer returning. It also meant he had to modify his diet. “Pauline [a registered dietitian within the Program], spoke to us about what I could and couldn’t eat and about substitutes, for example, for ice cream. It’s as if she knew I might be overwhelmed by the talk. She gave us brochures to take away so we could pick out things later.”

Clinicians within the Program also provide specialized emotional support and expertise in pain and symptom management to help manage the physical experiences related to cancer and the side effects of treatment. “Our goal is to help individuals and their loved ones in a sensitive and compassionate way, to help maintain their quality of life,” says Jeff.

“In the case of Ginny and the need to talk to those who have been through the cancer journey,” says Margaret, “individuals may choose to share with others getting treatment, or talk with our volunteers – many who are also cancer survivors. They ‘lend’ an ear to offer encouragement and support.” To ensure access to a range of community resources the Program partners with organizations such as Wellspring Cancer Support Centres.

For information about the Patient and Family Support Program at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre, visit http://www.sunnybrook.ca/content/?page=Focus_OCC_Prog_PsycOnc.