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Cancer Patients Need Compassionate Talk

October 5, 2006

Madeline Vann

We've all been there. A good friend or family member shares bad news: the diagnosis is cancer. What can we say that will help, not hurt? What will let people know we care, yet not be too pushy? What if we say the wrong thing?


Talking with compassion to cancer patients is an important part of their experience, says author and cancer survivor Lori Hope. Hope's book on the subject will be on sale at the Tulane University School of Medicine on Monday (Oct. 9), and she will give a free public lecture on Thursday (Oct. 12).

On Thursday, Oct. 12, from 4 to 6 p.m., author and cancer survivor Lori Hope will speak at a free, public lecture titled "Compassionate Communication: A Forum for Anyone Touched by Cancer." The forum will take place in the first-floor auditorium of 1430 Tulane Ave.

Hope, an Emmy-winning documentary producer and former medical reporter, wrote Help Me Live: 20 Things People With Cancer Want You to Know after she survived her own battle with cancer. The book summarizes the results of interviews and an online survey Hope conducted with cancer survivors, physicians and therapists to find out what people with cancer want others to know.

The chapter titles include advice like "It's OK to say or do the 'wrong' thing," "I want to hear success stories, not horror stories" and "I don't know why I got cancer, and I don't want to hear your theory" -- sentiments people in the throes of a newly traumatic situation might not be able to share with the loved ones they need around them.

"The book offers some guidance but it is not prescriptive," explains Hope, whose tips for communicating also appear in the October issue of Redbook magazine.

"What is a salve for one person may be a stab to another. The idea was really just to build sensitivity around the issue. The guidelines are applicable to all kinds of difficult situations such as cancer, divorce and heart disease. They are just basic rules of compassionate communication like 'listen' and 'ask permission before you give advice.' "

Hope is visiting Tulane as a guest of pulmonologist Nereida Parada, who met her at an American Thoracic Society meeting in May, where Hope was sharing her story as a cancer survivor.

"Compassionate communication is one of the most important aspects of taking care of our patients and communicating with anyone we love or care about," says Parada. "Hope's book specifically addresses this in the context of cancer, but it can help with almost any health situation. Knowing what people need or do not need, as expressed in Help Me Live, can help anyone who might be struggling with what to say or how to say it."

While here, Hope also will present a Grand Rounds lecture for medical students, residents and staff to help them better understand smoking patients' unspoken concerns about tobacco cessation. Hope says she is excited about discussing communication techniques with medical students.

"A physician's words hold particular sway, and a compassionate reaction to a patient's suffering can not only make the patient feel better emotionally, but may contribute to his or her healing by ensuring treatment compliance," she adds.

On Monday, Oct. 9, from 12 to 1 p.m., Hope's book will be available for sale outside the medical school cafeteria at 1430 Tulane Ave. Parada also will be selling handmade bookmarks to raise money for education efforts related to cancer and smoking cessation.

The books and bookmarks also will be available for sale at the free public event on Oct. 12 from 4 to 6 p.m. Hope's visit is brought to Tulane by the Tulane University School of Medicine Section of Pulmonary Diseases, Critical Care and Environmental Medicine; the Tulane Cancer Center; the Tulane University Hospital and Clinic; the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living; and the American Lung Association. Pfizer Pharmaceuticals will provide refreshments.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000