The Comfort Behind the Care

Patient and Family Support Services reduce the stress of living with cancer

A popular geology professor at Dartmouth College, Dick Birnie was leading an active life when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002.

Focus article photo

Dick and Pietie Birnie

Dick and his wife, Pietie, were soon immersed in learning everything they could about his disease. Pietie discovered that spouses were welcome in the monthly Man-to-Man prostate cancer support group offered at Norris Cotton Cancer Center through Patient and Family Support Services and the American Cancer Society. She decided to go—without Dick. "He wasn't in the right frame of mind to go at the time," she says. "I found the group very helpful. It's really good to be able to talk to other spouses of cancer patients and survivors."

That was eight years ago. Now both Dick and Pietie are active members of the prostate cancer support group that meets the fourth Monday of each month. Dick is glad he changed his mind about participating. "For me the most important thing is the terrific information, both from the presentations that offer high quality professional information about the disease, and from the information shared by other survivors in terms of the ways they cope," Dick explains. "There are also friendships and personal associations that develop."

Support services are an integral part of the comprehensive patient-and family-centered approach that is the cornerstone of care at Norris Cotton Cancer Center. Patient and Family Support Services offers programs that address the physical and emotional comfort of patients and their caregivers through treatment and beyond.

"We help cancer patients and their family members find a path through a devastating disease," says Deborah Steele, MA, manager of Patient and Family Support Services. "Through educational seminars, a library of resources, targeted support groups, expressive arts, and gentle body and energy work, our staff and volunteers touch patients in many different ways. And we find they touch us too."

For Bruce Craigie and his wife, Judy Estherhans, support services and programs are a true testament to the Cancer Center's commitment to caring for the whole person. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four months ago, Bruce has found that the gentle comfort of Reiki and chair massage help him get through difficult days. "Chair massage really helps me to relax before chemotherapy," says Bruce, while Judy nods in agreement. "We are also support group positive!" she says. The couple attends the monthly pancreatic support group facilitated by Alex Fuld, MD, and Judy has participated in the Caregivers Support Group. "You can feel all by yourself, having never dealt with cancer before," Judy says. "It's helpful to hear what people have done ahead of you and to connect with others in the same situation."

Photo: Susan Shaw

Susan Shaw

Susan Shaw, who receives chemotherapy for gynecologic cancer, points proudly to a poem she started last week in the Infusion Suite with creative writing specialist Marv Klassen-Landis. "He really helped me unlock the expression that came out in that poem," she says with a smile, "and he gave me a blank journal!" Susan also has found value in being involved in the Cancer Center's newest group, a phone support group for gynecologic cancer patients facilitated by Kathleen Berger, APRN, MSN, and has enjoyed working on a watercolor of a comforting, favorite place in nature with artist Rebecca Gottesman.

Whether in a monthly support group, through expressive art, or with a gentle massage, support services help connect cancer patients and family members to a renewed sense of well-being. As Dick Birnie recalls, "During my first day in chemo I was nervous and scared. All of a sudden in comes a volunteer with a comfort cart full of goodies. Then Margaret the harpist appears and plays for us. I thought, 'This is real attention.' They care about us here and it absolutely makes the experience so much better."

April 20, 2010