Monday, March 29, 2010

March 29, 2010 - Survivors' Tips from Dr. Laura Liberman

When I attended the Lymphoma Research Foundation’s national meeting in New York last fall, one of the most helpful presentations I heard was by Dr. Laura Liberman, a radiologist on the staff of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Dr. Liberman spoke not so much as a physician, but as a cancer survivor. She herself has been successfully treated for lymphoma.

She evidently gave the same talk again at a more recent event at MSKCC, and they’ve posted an online video of it. It’s just 30 minutes long, and is well worth it.

Laura’s experience was, like mine, one of tables being turned. As a pastor, I’ve visited with many cancer patients, and have tried to give them what help I could. She and I both found it disorienting, at first, to assume the role of a patient. In fact, the title of Laura’s book is I Signed As the Doctor – the first several times she signed consent forms for medical procedures, she made the mistake of signing on the line marked “Doctor,” rather than “Patient.”

Here are Dr. Laura Liberman’s cancer survival tips, a baker’s dozen:

1. Reach out to your friends.
Some people can’t deal with your cancer (it’s not in their nature), but many will be grateful for the opportunity to step up and help.

2. It’s OK to cry, but try to keep it to 20 minutes a day or less.
This is no joke. An oncology nurse gave her this advice. Laura actually found it helpful to try to fit her crying into that period of time (20 minutes at a stretch, four 5-minute crying jags, whatever worked). I didn't do much crying myself, being the typical male in our culture, but I appreciate the importance of giving ourselves permission to feel sad.

3. Ask people to pray for you.
Laura’s of the opinion that prayer, from any and all religious traditions, is a good thing. If nothing else, you may receive a sense of positive energy coming toward you, and it allows friends want to do something to help you who may have no other way to do so.

4. Find doctors you can trust.
You don’t want Dr. House from TV, she says. You want someone who’s empathetic as well as technically skilled

5. Take it bird by bird.
A literary reference to Anne Lamott’s book of that title. Lamott tells the story of how her brother was frustrated at the magnitude of his grade-school report assignment on “The Birds of North America.” Their father gave him the sage advice to “take it bird by bird.” So, too, with cancer. The big picture can feel overwhelming, especially at the outset. Take it one medical procedure at a time.

6. Be sensitive to your family.
Be honest with your kids, but don’t overwhelm them with more information than they can handle. Make sure your kids know you will still be there for them.

7. Be your own advocate.
Do your own research. Bring someone with you on doctor’s visits – not only to help you advocate for yourself, and also to listen for details you will probably miss. Laura suggests “bringing your own anesthesia” – not the big stuff you need an anesthesiologist for, of course, but she sings the praises of something called Gebauer ethyl chloride, a topical application you can get at the pharmacy with a prescription. The stuff numbs the skin; it’s what they spray on kids’ skinned knuckles in the emergency room. Emla Cream, she says, is also useful, though you have to apply it a half-hour before. Not every doctor, she says, is alert to the value of preventing minor pain, like that of a needle insertion, with such topical preparations. Bring the stuff with you, though, and the doctor’s unlikely to object.

8. Find silver linings (it’s an opportunity to get new hats!).
Laura says she indulged herself, when she was losing her hair, by buying herself an embarrassing number of fashionable new hats. People want to say “You look great,” she points out – but when they can’t, you can always ask them, “Do you like my hat?”

9. Discover your inner Zen.
By this, she means whatever it is that brings you to a place of inner peace. There’s an awful lot of waiting associated with being a cancer patient, and all that downtime can lead to excessive worrying. One friend advised her to pretend each doctor’s visit is a trip to the airport – if you don’t have to wait that long, you’ll be pleased. Get an iPod, she also advises – so you can listen to music during all those waiting experiences. Putting songs onto your iPod is something teenagers can do for you.

10. Keep your sense of humor.
Nothing about cancer is a joke, but if you can focus on things that make you laugh, that’s a good thing.

11. Play the cancer card.
Every once in a while, it helps to mention that you have cancer. Sometimes people will give you special consideration (she’s got a good story about this on the video about getting a cab in New York).

12. Savor celebrations. It’s not all about the cancer!
Celebrations are important at any time of life, but especially when you’re sick. “The way you make life good is by incorporating good stuff into it.”

13. Use your experience to help others.
Give back, pay it forward, or whatever you like to call it. This can help you feel you’re going through this experience for a reason

Good advice. Check out the video!


Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

Thank you for this link. With hope, Wendy

Unknown said...

This is a very interesting blog and so i like to visit your blog again and again. Keep it up.


Unknown said...

I love these tips, so true!!
And I like your hat.