In working with patients with cancer, there are simple concepts you can apply that can make a difference in the lives of those you work with. Individually or taken together, these pieces of advice can help build trust, comfort, and emotional well-being for those undergoing treatment and beyond.

Be sure your patients have a working knowledge of the language of oncology

The diagnosis of cancer is a life-changing event. Patients have the task of making sense of their diagnosis. A primary goal should be to ensure that your patients understand cancer terminology and definitions. Patients grapple with a completely new vocabulary most have never encountered. Health care professionals, fluent in “onco-speak,” often do not acknowledge this challenge, leaving patients feeling excluded from their own narrative. “Physicians often use medical jargon, deliver too much information at a time, and do not confirm the patient’s understanding of what was discussed,”according to a report by Sunil Kripalani, MD, MSc, and Barry D. Weiss, MD .1

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Meeting patients with an aura of approachability, an explanation of terms, and a thorough, open recognition that patients are moving into unknown territory is likely to empower them to enhance their locus of control. This allows patients a greater level of comfort with their treatment team, as well as a reduction of anxiety in a situation that could easily exacerbate “white-coat syndrome,” not to mention resistance to treatment.

Recognize the impact of cancer on every facet of a patient’s life

It helps to consider that a diagnosis of cancer affects every single aspect of a patient’s life. An analogy is that cancer takes the patient’s “dresser drawer of life” and tips it over, leaving every element from the drawer in complete disarray. Life’s components — relationships, finances, careers, fitness, faith, family dynamics, self-care, independence, and the like — will be affected. Slowly, piece by piece, patients will attempt to reorganize their life to exhibit some semblance of order.

We who work in oncology understand that these components will never fit together in exactly the same way. Some pieces may be discarded, others moved to the front of the drawer, and some will get packed into the middle or pushed all the way to the back. Often patients state longingly, “I want my life to be like it was before cancer. I want my old life to return.” The truth is, their life drawer is rearranged now, and life prior to cancer is apt to be a memory morphed into something else. This something else, a life after a cancer diagnosis, can still contain magical elements, promise and hope, and an opportunity for nurses to help patients find it.

Cancer affects priorities

Cancer can be referred to as “the brutal teacher,” in that it often teaches one what is truly important in life. Cancer can’t help but change patients and those who love them, often on a deep and fundamental level. Patients may learn not to take anything for granted, to live life with greater empathy, meaning, and compassion or any number of other realizations. How can you acknowledge the transformations your patients are experiencing?