Encourage All Patients to Reach Out for Help--Even If They're Healthcare Professionals

June 1, 2018
Alene Nitzky, PhD, RN, OCN
Alene Nitzky, PhD, RN, OCN

Alene Nitzky is an oncology nurse, author of Navigating the C: A Nurse Charts the Course for Cancer Survivorship Care, Blue Bayou Press, 2018. She is a cancer exercise trainer and health coach, and is CEO/Founder of Cancer Harbors®.

One of the hardest things for some people to do is to ask for help, including healthcare professionals.

One of the hardest things for some people to do is to ask for help. It's the old bootstraps mentality--that you can do it on your own and think it would hurt your pride by needing a handout or help from anyone.

As a nurse, I know a lot of nurses and others who work in healthcare. We encourage patients to reach out to resources in their communities to support them during and after cancer treatment.

But we often don't take our own advice.

I run a community-based cancer survivorship support program that is available to clients free of charge through the generosity of a local not-for-profit organization. In addition, I teach a class that combines learning about different types of therapeutic physical activity and movement with social support. It is composed entirely of cancer survivors, but it is not primarily a talk support group.

Hospitals and local healthcare facilities do not offer anything similar. Beyond traditional medical interventions and integrative medicine, they do not offer any sort of organized program for patients beyond primary treatment.

It's important to realize that medicine and healing are completely different things. Integrative medicine does incorporate non-traditional interventions into cancer treatment, but after treatment is done, patients find themselves without guidance.

When a healthcare professional is diagnosed with cancer, despite knowing that having access to resources for education, social support, and healing is important to optimizing the outcome after treatment, they often fall into that mistake of thinking they can do it on their own, they know what to do, they don't need additional help.

And then 6 months or a year goes by, and they are still fatigued, lost, depressed, anxious, feel like they aren't making any progress, and are asking, "When will I feel better? Will I ever feel better?"

Depression is often at the root of the unwillingness to reach out. You can know all there is to know about recognizing and treating depression, but when you are depressed, you cannot see a clear way out of it. It's hard to gather the energy to take even a simple, short step forward. A foggy mind doesn't allow for the best decision-making.

Anxiety about confronting fears keeps people from seeking help, too. Isolation is both a contributor to, and a result of, anxiety. Being around other people who have been through similar experiences is comforting, even if those shared experiences are not the focus of the support services.

Healthcare professionals are human, we have the same fears, vulnerability to depression and anxiety, and risk of illness as the population we serve. It's quite possible that we have even greater vulnerability and risk because of the nature of what we do.

Don't try to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. You wouldn't tell a patient to do that. I hope you never will, but if you ever find yourself in the unfortunate role of patient, give yourself that same compassion and care.