November/December 2000

Supporting Those With Cancer

based on a presentation by M. Fischer and K. Carmichael, Cancer Clinic Social Workers.

For many, the word cancer raises frightening images. A lot of this has to do with our experiences with cancer and our perceptions of it. Myths and misconceptions associated with cancer can interfere with our interaction and support of people with cancer. Although cancer patients are viewed as different from others, cancer patients tend to be emotionally healthy individuals whose adjustment problems result from their physical illness. Differences arise from how patients with cancer view themselves and how they are viewed by others. Despite knowledge, access to information and greater openness, myths and misconceptions about cancer still abound. This disease instils much fear and still carries a stigma. What we believe about cancer is based on a variety of factors, including family history, personal experience with loved ones, education, cultural, religious beliefs and emotional responses to the illness.

Myths About Cancer

Is cancer contagious?
The idea cancer can be caught from another person developed many years ago when little was known about the disease and not many survived. Cancer arises in our bodies. There are three types of tumors which develop in three kinds of tissue. Carcinomas are cancers that develop in the tissue that covers the surface of or line internal organs, for example, the lung, breast and pancreas. Sarcomas are soft tissue or bone tumors. They develop in supporting or connective tissues such as muscles, bone, nerves and tendons. Lymphomas and leukemias develop in the lymph gland or arise from the blood forming cells in the bone marrow.

Are all cancers inherited?
Cancer is not a single agent. Genetics, environment and familial traits all play a role. Family risk is common in breast and colon cancer and melanoma. Sometimes people are at greater risk if family members have cancer.

Can cancer be caused by injury?
No. Injury, bruises, and broken bones do not cause cancer. Often cancer is found because of an injury. Cancer is a complex disease, a combination of many factors.

Is cancer a disease of the elderly?
Not necessarily. Only about 50% of all cancers occur in people over 65. Testicular cancer and Hodgkin's Disease occur in younger people.

Is cancer inevitably painful?
No, especially with advances in pain management. In the early stages, cancer is often not painful. Early detection offers the best chance of a cure.

Does personality or stress cause cancer?
No link has been found between personality and cancer. Cancer is too complex to be explained by a single cause.

Does cancer mean certain death?
No. More than 50% of cancers can be successfully treated. For some cancers the success rate is very high. Survival of childhood cancers has increased to 75%. Cancer has become a chronic illness for some. Some live many years with their disease under control and a good quality of life.

Myths About Treatment

Does exposing a tumor to air during surgery cause cancer to spread?
An operation cannot cause a cancer to develop or spread. Occasionally surgery can cause a tumor to "seed" into the incision site. Treatment with chemotherapy or radiation afterwards catches loose cancer cells. Complete removal of the tumor is the best chance for a cure.

Do all cancer drugs cause the same effect?
There are a variety of chemotherapy drugs. Not all have the same side effects. There are drugs to combat side effects. Meditation and relaxation is also used.

Is the treatment worse than the disease?
This is a dangerous idea, as an untreated cancer is far more dangerous than a cancer that is being treated. Tumors left to grow interfere with body functions and are more difficult to manage. Treatment can be curative or aggressive enough to eliminate the cancer. Palliative means to control the symptoms of the disease and create a better quality of life.

Coping With Cancer

Do people really want to know if they have cancer?
People who are told about their diagnosis are able to cope more effectively. Patients want more control and involvement in treatment. This leads to a better understanding with doctors.

If patients know their diagnosis will they become depressed and feel more hopeless?
When they are not told, patients become depressed. Depression can occur immediately following the diagnosis, which is normal. Patients are mourning their losses. Drugs are sometimes the answer for severe depression. Most times learning coping skills is better and effective for the patient.

Is cancer a punishment?
No. This is not a logical or rational thought. Smoking and lifestyle may lead to feelings of guilt.

Will a positive attitude influence survival?
Most patients are realistic about how they might influence their disease but do realize that a positive attitude will make them feel better and more in control. Relaxation and positive imagery is helpful to patients. It is problematic to be reluctant to show feelings of sadness, anger and fear. If these feelings aren't dealt with, they can seriously interfere with the building of hope and positive coping strategies. Self blame is common if the disease reoccurs.

What We Need to Know About Cancer Patients.

What Can We Do As Caregivers?

From Saskatoon, Nov. 2000, via Inside Out On-line Nov/Dec 2000., via Inside Out On-line November/December 2000

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