New Nurses and Cancer Patients

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

Most everyone is uncertain and tentative when first talking with people who are in treatment for cancer. What should you say? What should you not say?

This is just as true for health professionals as it is for members of the general public. Even hospital employees sometimes feel tongue-tied when cancer is the diagnosis.

I recently spoke with a class of nursing students at Tompkins Cortland Community College. One woman raised her hand and said, “I’ll soon graduate and begin working in a hospital. What should I do to help my patients who have cancer?”

I thought it was a great question and I’ve since asked several experienced oncology nurses what they would have shared with the students. This is what they said:

  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Sometimes you can best support patients by simply being with them without talking.
  • Don’t reflexively say, “Everything will be fine,” or some other reassuring sentiment. It’s better to ask, “How are you doing with all of this?”
  • Don’t assume that what you would want is what they should want.
  • Be vigilant about pain control. If the patient is in pain, call the doctor. If the patient continues to be in pain, call the doctor again.
  • Gently remind patients that they – not their family members or even their doctors – are in charge of treatment decisions.
  • Listen to the patients, especially those who have had cancer for a while. They know much more about their cancer than you do.
  • Ask the patient to tell you their story in their own words. You’ll learn about their cancer and about them.
  • Be aware of the patient’s social situation. Is there support at home? Is the patient likely to fall between the cracks and not receive care after leaving the hospital?
  • Understand that cancer affects the entire family. Loved ones are often more stressed than the person with cancer.
  • Use each patient as a learning experience – study their specific type of cancer. What you learn will stay with you because you have a face to go with that diagnosis.
  • Be aware of support programs within the hospital (e.g., the chaplain) and in the community (e.g., cancer support organizations) and suggest them to patients when appropriate.
  • If you have questions, contact the hospital’s oncology nurses. They’re usually happy to talk about their work and share their knowledge with you.

Several of the nurses I talked with said that they never expected to work in oncology, but they do and they love it. One put it this way, “I once thought cancer was about death and dying, but it’s not. It’s all about life and living.”

Reprinted with Permission of the Ithaca Journal

Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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