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Helpful advice for patients from an oncology nurse

News coverage, social media, and TV ads all suggest cancer treatment is being revolutionized.

Personalized medicine! Targeted therapies! Immunotherapy! It all seems so positive —until, that is, you are the one who has cancer.

Nothing compares to hearing "you've got cancer and here are the treatment options." The shock, uncertainty, fear, and confusion are devastating.  So many thoughts and questions come to mind.  What should I know? Who should I ask?

As an oncology nurse, I get a perspective on these questions from my patients, their families, and my colleagues.  Here are some of my top tips for anyone receiving cancer care:

Get to know your care team. That team is essential to getting the care you need and want.  Beyond the physicians and nurses you would expect to be on the team, look for nurse practitioners, nutritional counselors, social workers, physical and occupational therapists, psychologists, pharmacists, and chaplains. And don't forget the receptionists and medical assistants; these team members check you in for the appointment, and check your temperature and blood pressure.  They typically know a lot about how the clinic runs and what you should expect.

Make communication a priority. Clear communication is key to understanding and following your treatment plan. Several strategies can help to ensure optimal communication between you, your team, and your family and friends:

  1. Bring an advocate – a friend or a relative – with you to every appointment. You'll each hear different things and can compare notes to figure out your questions.

  2. Keep a notebook for  information you receive and questions you have.

  3. Review information from the Internet critically. Check for credible sources and timely content. Ask care team members if they have favorite sites they recommend.

  4. Ask someone you trust to help you make sense of all the information that's coming at you. But unless the information requires immediate action, it's okay to pace yourself and say, "Sorry, but I can't take that in right now. Would you wait and talk with me again later?"

Protect yourself from germs. Make sure those who care for you – even if they are only talking with you – wash their hands!  Don't be shy about asking. Clean hands mean better health, whether you have cancer or not.

Understand your medications.  Know what you are taking, when to take each drug, and why.  If you aren't sure, just ask.  Talk with your pharmacist for education and advice.  Keep an updated list of medications, when you started taking them, when you stopped, and note any changes in dosages.

Share a laugh.  Having cancer is serious business and can get you down.  Turn that around and show your funny bone to your cancer care team. As a nurse, I treasure the bonds I've formed with patients and their families over a good joke.  And if telling jokes isn't your thing, share something about yourself, maybe a hobby or your favorite pet. Show your team the real you!

Kristen Maloney MSN, RN, AOCNS, is a Nurse Manager on an oncology floor at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania

Read more Diagnosis: Cancer here »