How do cancer survivors perceive their cancer?

Perception — a way of regarding, understanding or interpreting something; a mental impression.

How do you respond when someone asks you “What is your profession?” Are you just a nurse or are you a nurse with a BSN, OCN, or caring nurse? In Kelley Johnson’s monologue in the 2016 Miss America pageant she talked about how she would tell her patient that she was just a nurse, but what her patient taught her was that she was more than just a nurse. Just because she had those two letters — RN – after her name she was much more than that. It’s all in perception! Just as that patient taught her that she was more than a nurse, we need to help patients understand that they are not defined by their disease, stage or treatment type. They are all cancer survivors from the moment they receive their diagnosis.

What happens when someone hears the words “You have cancer”? Do they automatically assume it’s a death sentence or is it something less serious? Even with all the developments in modern medicine people still dread it more than any other disease, I think. Is cancer more serious than the number one leading cause of death worldwide, heart disease?

Patient perceptions play a huge part in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. When patients have a preconception of what procedures may be involved in the diagnosis to the treatment of cancer they may tend to put off seeking medical help. Some may believe that they are immune to cancer and others believe that no matter what they do they are going to get cancer. An individual’s beliefs about cancer can have a huge impact on how they cope with it.

When the patient receives that medical confirmation that they have cancer do they differentiate it as a “little bit of cancer” or “Is it just cancer?” How important is the provider-patient relationship in this process? Does stage matter in the way nurses take care of the patient? I know that stage does matter to a physician treating the cancer, but do nurses treat the patient differently?

I honestly have never thought about this until recently when someone asked me if I treat patients differently based on their stage of diagnosis. At my prior job, working in a busy clinic, cancer was cancer to me. It didn’t matter if you had Stage I or Stage IV, I treated them all the same. Now that I am in the survivorship role I hear “Oh I don’t qualify because I just had a little bit of cancer and didn’t have to go through chemotherapy and/or radiation.” My first question is what makes this patient feel like they don’t qualify just because they didn’t receive chemotherapy and/or radiation? Do they feel less important than those that receive more treatment for their cancer?

I believe it starts with how the information is presented and what information is given to the patient from the physician. I also think it is more important than ever for nurses to be an advocate for the patient. Explain to them that it doesn’t matter if it is stage I or stage IV they are considered a survivor. It is the role of the nurse that is going to make a difference in how this patient perceives their cancer journey. So, the next time you hear “Oh, I don’t qualify” be sure to educate your patient like Kelly’s patient did her, that they are not defined by their treatment and qualify for survivorship services.

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