Facing Cancer While Living Alone

People with cancer who live alone face a lot of unique challenges, whether it’s keeping your spirits up, getting chores done, or meeting with your medical team. Most of the time, friends want to offer assistance in some way, and there are people and services in the community who can help. Here are some tips that can help remedy any sense of isolation, which commonly occurs for people with cancer who live in a household of one:

Network: reach out to friends, acquaintances, members of your community of faith, and co-workers. People often are willing to lend a hand if they know you need it. Give them options, depending on your level of comfort, for how they can get involved.

Reach out to community organizations: Local non-profit and religious organizations may offer assistance. In particular, the American Cancer Society, United Way and Area Agencies on Aging may be able to connect you with volunteers to help with transportation, shopping, housekeeping, meals and companionship in difficult times.

Use the Web: Several online tools are available to help you share your story with friends and family—and inspire them to contribute everything from kind words to a Sunday casserole to a case of nutritional drinks. These include CarePages.com, which offers free space to post updates on your condition; here’s how it works. Another useful tool, LotsaHelpingHands.com, offers ways to solicit and organize help. Also consider setting up a wish list via Amazon.com to let people know what supplies you need, even if they aren’t offered for sale by Amazon.

Bring a tape recorder: If you don’t feel comfortable inviting a friend to your medical appointments, bring a tape recorder to help you remember what your doctor says. You can listen to these conversations again later if questions pop up. You can also ask your doctor to mail you a copy of the clinical notes after each visit.

Get support: No matter how independent you are, it’s important to have an emotional outlet during these difficult times. Make regular phone calls to catch up with friends socially. And consider talking with a therapist, counselor, member of the clergy or spiritual care provider.

You can find more tips about coping here.

When Talking Makes All the Difference

Sharing Cancer History with Family Members

Sharing the news about a cancer diagnosis with family members can be just as difficult as first hearing about the diagnosis itself; however, sharing medical history information with relatives has only gained importance as doctors learn about the genetic link associated with some cancers.

Shanna Gustafson, MS, MPH, is a Cancer Genetics Counselor at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center

Oftentimes, there is mystery surrounding why relatives died or illnesses they may have had, due to family members’ hesitancy to share personal medical information.  In an attempt to encourage families to share their health history with relatives, there are state and national initiatives to promote sharing family health history. The aims of these initiatives are to encourage families to collect and record their family health history, share it with health providers and relatives to help determine risks, and encourage prevention.

Most cancer is sporadic; however having a relative with a cancer diagnosis may influence the risk for other relatives to have a similar cancer. When collecting family history information to assess for the possibility of an increased cancer risk, the most important details to identify include:

  • Which relatives have had a cancer diagnosis
  • Age of these relatives at diagnosis
  • Type of cancer or what organ did the cancer originate in
  • Whether any relatives have had more than one cancer diagnosis

It is also helpful to have information about the ages and number of relatives who have not had a cancer.  Continue reading

How to Cope with Radiation Therapy Side Effects

Radiation therapy treats cancer by using high energy to kill tumor cells.  Many people who get radiation therapy have skin changes and some fatigue.  Side effects vary from person to person; depend on the radiation dose, and the part of the body being treated. Some patients have no side effects at all, while others have quite a few. There is no way to predict who will have side effects.

Skin changes may include dryness, itching, peeling, or blistering. These changes occur because radiation therapy damages healthy skin cells in the treatment area.

Fatigue is often described as feeling worn out or exhausted.

If you have bad side effects, the doctor may stop your treatments for a while, change the schedule, or change the type of treatment you are getting.

Depending on the part of your body being treated, you may also have:

  • Diarrhea
  • Hair loss in the treatment area
  • Mouth changes such as soreness, dryness and difficulty swallowing (if radiation to head and  neck area)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sexual impact (tenderness and soreness of genital organs if radiation to this area)
  • Blood count changes

Most of these side effects go away within two months after radiation therapy is finished.

Late side effects may first occur six or more months after radiation therapy is over.  Late side effects may include infertility, joint problems, lymphedema, mouth problems, and secondary cancer. Everyone is different, so talk to your doctor or nurse about whether you might have late side effects and what signs to look for.

What can you do to take care of yourself during treatment?

  • Be sure to get plenty of rest. You may feel more tired than normal.
  • Eat a balanced, nutritious diet. Depending on the area of your body getting radiation (for example, the belly or pelvic area), your doctor or nurse may suggest changes in your diet.
  • Take care of the skin in the treatment area. If you get external radiation therapy, the skin in the treatment area may become more sensitive or look and feel sunburned. Ask your doctor or nurse before using any soap, lotions, deodorants, medicines, perfumes, cosmetics, talcum powder, or anything else on the treated area.
  • Do not wear tight clothes over the treatment area. This includes girdles, pantyhose, or close-fitting collars. Instead, wear loose, soft cotton clothing. Do not starch your clothes.
  • Do not rub, scrub, or use adhesive tape on treated skin. If your skin must be bandaged, use paper tape or other tape for sensitive skin.
  • Do not put heat or cold (such as a heating pad, heat lamp, or ice pack) on the treatment area.
  • Protect the treated area from the sun. Your skin may be extra sensitive to sunlight.   Ask your doctor if you should use a lotion that contains a sunscreen.

Did you experience any side effects from your radiation treatment?  What did you do to cope?  Please feel free to share any tips to help others.


U-M Department of Radiation Oncology

U-M Caring for Yourself after Radiation Therapy

National Cancer Institute, Radiation Therapy and You:  Support for People With Cancer

7 tips for choosing gifts for children with special needs

If you are looking for the right present for a child with special needs this holiday season, consider these ideas from therapists at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.  Above all, keep in mind the particular personality, preferences and ability levels of the child you are shopping for. Your thoughtfulness will be appreciated by parents and caretakers—and if the gift doesn’t work out well, the receipt usually will!

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Tips for talking to children about tragic events

Returning to school Monday after the school shootings in Connecticut will be a challenge for both children and parents, but parents can try to minimize the anxiety and reassure children.

Even very young children can have feelings about scary events.  The good news is that children and youth are often quite resilient.  An important part of children’s positive coping is for parents to make sure that their children feel connected, heard and understood, and loved.

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Mouth Care: Why it’s Important Before, During and After Cancer Treatment

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can cause complications like sores in the mouth and changes to the teeth, salivary glands, gums and bone, which makes mouth care important before, during and after cancer treatment.

Before cancer treatment begins:

Problems such as cavities, broken teeth, loose crowns or fillings, and gum disease can get worse or cause problems during cancer treatment. Because bacteria live in the mouth, it may cause an infection when the immune system is not working well or when white blood cell counts are low. If dental problems are treated before cancer treatments begin, there may be fewer or milder oral problems.

Visiting the dentist at least a month before cancer treatment begins allows time for the mouth to heal if any dental work is needed. In addition, a visit to the dentist before treatment starts will help avoid needed dental treatments during cancer treatment.

During cancer treatment:

Paying close attention to oral health during cancer treatment will help prevent complications or allow you to treat them as quickly as possible. Everyday mouth care during cancer treatment should include:

  • Brushing:  Using only a soft-bristle brush 2-3 times a day and at bedtime for 2-3 minutes.
    • Let the toothbrush air-dry between brushings and replace the brush often.
    • Avoid mint flavored or other strong flavored toothpaste or toothpaste with whitening ingredients, which may irritate the mouth. Instead choose a mild flavored fluoride toothpaste.
    • Try brushing using a mixture of 1/4 teaspoon of salt added to 1 cup of warm water if toothpaste seems to irritate.
    • If you wear dentures, they should be cleaned and rinsed every day using a denture cleaner recommended by a dentist. Store the dentures in water or denture solution when not being worn.
    • Rinsing: Avoid commercial mouthwashes and those with alcohol. Use a salt and soda mouth rinse instead.
    • Flossing: Ask the doctor if it’s OK to floss gently once a day
    • Lip care:  Use lip care products to prevent chapped or cracked lips Continue reading