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Give InKind recently sat down with Sharagim Kemp, MD, whose specialty is in primary care. In the course of treating patients, she treats families. Kemp enjoys developing longstanding and continuing relationships with her patients. We asked about how best to support a family in treatment for cancer – up to and including terminal diagnoses and necessary hospice care.
Dr. Kemp advises that a contact person be designated. Avoid bombarding cancer patients (or their families) with multiple phone calls. That said, it is imperative that the patient know that s/he is being thought of; that s/he has not been forgotten by a caring community. If you are the designated contact, be sure to write down the sorts of things that people are asking, saying, and offers of help. This sort of thing staves off isolation.
Have a set schedule of meals for people to supply for the family. If meals are being prepared locally and delivered, consider leaving a refrigerator outside. Make sure to use dishes that are disposable or that you never expect to see again. Where cancer is concerned, no one has time to track dishes return. A waiting refrigerator ensures that food will stay safe to eat and that no one needs to come out to receive food – even for a moment. If visitors really are welcome, the family can open the door.
Cleaning services are generally extremely welcome. People with cancer are often discouraged by their lack of agency. It is jangling for people used to ably running a household to be too sick to pick up. In addition, people in chemotherapy/radiation treatment are immune compromised as a result, and a clean house is critical.
Grocery shopping is a welcome gift. When at the grocery store, text the designated contact person as to whether anything is necessary. For families with children, errands are a constant and real struggle. It is always something. Tights for a ballet recital, a glue stick for a book report – these things can make or break a family under great emotional and physical stress.
It is important to respect the space of a family during illness. Even if one has a close relationship with the person who is ill, your visit their impacts the entire family unit – each member of whom is coping in their own way. The ill person may welcome a visit from a friend – but consider too the feelings and needs of the other members of the family. An ill person may save energy for young children – over a peer/friend – no matter how dear. Understand shifting boundaries – and respect them.
If the patient is up for a visit, do keep it short. Energy is a precious commodity.
Depending on your relationship to the patient, you don’t necessarily have to avoid painful topics. Know who you are to the patient. Be mindful of cues as to how much to press – but if you want to go to places of fear or uncertainty, you can. The patient spends a lot of time there – and might use the company. Just read the situation carefully. Patients know what is happening – an opportunity to discuss it may sometimes be very welcome.
Don’t forget to support the caregiver. Provide respite. Do go ahead and offer to come and spend the night so that the caregiver can rest knowing that someone else is on hand.
Dr. Kemp reminds that one of the hardest parts of cancer is missing out on the important moments in a life. These include the lives of the patient’s children. Do create experiences for a family to cherish. Go ahead and plan a movie showing in the backyard on a summer evening. Make some popcorn and invite a few close friends. Or, bring a school concert home in similar fashion.
If the prognosis is not favorable, help the cancer patient to plan for their death. This can be comforting, because it provides a blueprint for extended family care. No matter how painful a terminal diagnosis may be it is more painful to not understand plans for the care of children and spouse. Doing things like designating close friends to help with specific tasks may be empowering.