A Show of Support

A radiation oncologist at one of the most comprehensive care facilities in the world, Dr. Onyinye Balogun knows more than most about patient care. In addition to ensuring that her patients have access to the latest technologies in radiation oncology, she works closely with colleagues across all disciplines to ensure that her patients’ treatment plans meet their needs.

Those needs, Dr. Balogun understands, are unique to each patient, and personalized care, delivered with compassion and concern, is at the heart of her approach. In a recent discussion with us, she shared her thoughts on the importance of social support systems and the ways in which that support can be most effectively delivered.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

In your experience treating cancer patients, do you feel that a social support system has a significant impact on how someone handles their diagnosis and treatment?

Without a doubt, a social support system positively impacts one’s ability to handle a cancer diagnosis and treatment. When patients have a social support system, those within it retain information that the patients themselves may not remember because they are reeling from the diagnosis or the side effects of treatment.

Aside from that, there are excellent emotional benefits. I have had patients confide in me that they notice other individuals with family members or loved ones in the waiting room while they are sitting alone. They have also lamented that they don't have anyone to call when their thoughts and fears begin to set in at night. It breaks my heart. I wish I could be there at every moment for every individual under my care, but I can't. Just by showing up to sit with a friend or loved one, you are making a significant difference! By just calling them or picking up the phone when they call you, you provide an outlet for their anxieties and emotions. I believe strongly in the mind-body connection. I believe stress negatively affects the body and has the ability to adversely affect the treatment I deliver to cancer patients, so I always ask my patients to try and minimize sources of stress in their lives.

What are some of the things you have seen family members and friends do for patients that you thought were particularly effective?

One of my patients had a group of friends who took turns accompanying her to her appointments. These individuals knew her well, and if she was getting very anxious, they knew how to calm her down. They also took notes so she could remember what I said. Also, chemotherapy appointments can last for hours and the radiotherapy sessions can span one to two months. Towards the end of treatment, people tend to feel very tired. If friends and family can put together a schedule so someone is present—whether to just provide moral support or do things the patient may be too tired to do—I think that is a great way to help.   

It is also important to celebrate! Send a card when chemotherapy or radiation therapy is ending or when it's beginning. I noticed that my patients looked forward to marking the end of their treatments with a party or a special trip. Along those lines, provide some laughter. Send a funny joke or story to your friends. We can all use a little more joy in our lives, especially when dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

We have noticed that a lot of people have a hard time accepting help and support. What advice have you given patients who need support from others but also feel reluctant to accept it?

We all need help at some point in our lives. Accept the help now so you can get better and pay it forward to whomever you choose.

What are some of the things you feel folks should be mindful of when trying to support family members and friends battling cancer? What words or actions should well-meaning people try to avoid?

Your experience is not their experience. Give your advice with a grain of salt and not as though it is gospel truth. Also, I find that friends and family members provide alternative treatments or supplements in an effort to help cure the cancer or relieve side effects. Please encourage your loved ones to discuss these supplements and alternative treatments with their physician. Many are more open-minded than you realize. They can work with you to safely incorporate what might be helpful at the right time and avoid counteracting the positive effects of the treatment you are receiving. Finally, understand that your loved one may change during the course of their illness and treatment. Please do not expect them to be the same person they were before and try to be understanding of those changes.

Dr. Onyinye Balogun

Dr. Onyinye Balogun is an Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology at Weill Cornell Medicine specializing in the treatment of breast and gastrointestinal malignancies. She is a graduate of Harvard University and Yale University School of Medicine. For more information, click here.