Helping health-care professionals speak to their breast cancer patients


Health-care professionals can play a critical role in supporting breast cancer survivors, yet many feel that they lack the skills and language required to make a supportive difference.

“As professionals immersed in the world of cancer care we sometimes forget that we don’t have to solve the whole problem for the patient” says Sue Wright, Communication and Outreach Coordinator at Willow Breast Cancer Support & Resource Services. “Acknowledging the awfulness of breast cancer to the patient doesn’t mean you are personally responsible for curing it. But to the person living with the disease it is proof that you are ‘on their side’ and see them as a person beyond the disease.”

In 1996 when Willow Breast Cancer Support and Resource Services began providing peer support and information to people living with breast cancer they did not fully understand the impact their services would have on health-care professionals. An invitation in 1998 to present to second year nursing students at Ryerson on how to support people undergoing cancer treatment unleashed numerous requests from other schools and faculties of nursing to formulate a teaching unit on the psycho-social role of health-care professionals in cancer care. Since then Willow’s Outreach Program has presented to more than 3,000 nurses, physicians, radiation therapists and technicians across Ontario.

Making the time to speak supportively to breast cancer patients is not generally the obstacle for health-care professionals. Many feel that they lack the skills and language required to “make a difference” and hesitate before approaching their patients. “Many health care professionals lack confidence in their ability to reach out to patients,” says Wright, creator of Willow’s teaching program. “They underestimate their skills and they need to discover that they are capable of supporting their patients.”

During the 90-minute session, Wright provides a candid insight into ways in which health-care professionals can communicate with their patients without compromising their own personal boundaries. It helps professionals accept what they can and cannot affect and it sets out strategies to help patients feel confident about decisions they will have to make. Most important, it empowers professionals to provide much-needed affirmation.

As well as the ongoing provision of “The Psycho-Social Role of Health Care Professionals in Breast Cancer Care” to second year nursing programs across the province, Willow has presented to diverse groups including Oncology Grand Rounds, Radiotherapy Planning and Treatment Rounds and Department of Family Medicine Group Meetings. For further information on incorporating this teaching module into your area of responsibility call Sue Wright toll-free at 1-888-778-3100 or email