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What to say (and what NOT to say) to a cancer patient

By Terri Coolong, PVH Cancer Support Group Leader

Being diagnosed with cancer is difficult not only for the patient, but for friends and family as well. Most of us are ill equipped to handle this kind of situation, and while well meaning, many of us say things that are hurtful or thoughtless. Here are some comments that I heard shortly after being diagnosed that had the very best of intentions, but fell flat for one reason or another.

“Call me if you need help.” This was a wonderful offer, but truly, at that point, I had no idea what I was going to need help with! Moreover, I was busy trying to juggle kids, husband, work, and medical appointments. I didn’t have the energy to think of what someone else could do, and like many people who are ill, I felt awkward asking for a favor.
Ø Try to come up with something specific that you can do for the person or the family with cancer. One of my friends came over every Friday afternoon and cleaned my house. Another kept track of my chemo appointments and made sure that someone had dropped off a hot meal on those days. Still others would call from the grocery store and ask what they could pick up for me while they were there. These people were able to find ways to help that did not involve me asking.

“Everything will be OK” or “You are a strong person, you’ll be fine”. Sometimes these statements come out of your fear that the person will NOT be fine. Other times, it is a fervent wish for the loved ones good health. However, when a patient is operating from a place of fear, of how they will react to treatments, of pain they might experience, of leaving loved ones to go on without them, these platitudes sound trite. It feels like no one is listening to how they really feel. They may not be feeling particularly strong at that point.
Ø Instead, try listening to the patient and tailor your comments to their specific situation and fears, and offer thoughtful, genuine encouragement.

“Do you think it is because you gained so much weight/smoked/don’t eat healthy foods?” A cancer patient is already worried and guilty that they have done something to cause their cancer, and adding fuel to the fire is not helpful. In most cases, it is very difficult to pinpoint a specific cause for cancer. We all have thoughts like this, but please, keep these kinds of thoughts to yourself. No one can change the past.
Ø Instead, focus on helping the patient regain their health. Think of ways to promote healthy living.
Ø Ask if the doctor has suggested a specific diet or exercises for the patient to do. Help them eat a healthy diet by bringing them fresh fruit or vegetables if that is what the doctor recommends (remember, many fresh foods are forbidden during a chemo regimen) or offer to be their exercise buddy and walk with them on a regular basis.

“My co-worker’s cousin’s brother had the same kind of cancer you do.” Every cancer diagnosis is different, and every person has an individualized plan to follow. Furthermore, everyone reacts differently to different drugs or chemotherapy. If they were never sick a day and I am vomiting because of the medicine, I don’t really want to hear about it. Even worse, telling me they died in spite of an aggressive treatment is something I REALLY don’t want to hear.
Ø Focus instead on asking thoughtful questions about their treatment and how they are reacting to it. You don’t need to offer advice to help someone who is going through cancer treatment. Just be there to listen.

“You should ________(fill in the blank).” No, they shouldn’t. They shouldn’t switch to a different doctor, or take more of a drug, or exercise more. They shouldn’t eat a macrobiotic diet, or sleep less, or get out of the house. “Shoulds” are generally value judgments that we are placing on someone else.
Ø What they should do is try to follow the plan that their oncologist has given them. If for some reason they are not succeeding, they already know it. As far as getting up or socializing, even people who don’t look sick might have a lot going on inside that makes it very difficult to stay awake and function. One side effect of cancer itself is extreme fatigue. Just getting out of bed in the morning may be the greatest thing they can accomplish.

Doing or saying nothing at all. Hardest of all for me was the friends who dropped out of my life while I was going through treatment. While I could rationalize that any of the dumb things that were said to me came from a place of caring and love, I found it very difficult to understand why some good friends were silent.
Ø There is always something you can do to make a patient feel loved and supported. One of the most meaningful things that happened during my cancer treatment was when, unbeknownst to me, my church planned a hat day. I had lost my hair and was wearing hats to cover my bald head. On that Sunday, when I looked out across the congregation and saw every head covered by some type of hat, whether fancy, silly, or utilitarian, I felt absolutely loved, supported, and accepted. No one had to say anything at all: their actions spoke volumes.

The PVH Cancer Support Group meets the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of the month from 6:00-7:15 pm in Conference Room B of the hospital. Meetings in March are the 8th and the 22nd. We are open to patients, caregivers, friends, and family. Remember, too, to check out our cancer library in the hospital chapel.

3/15 & 17 - First aid basics classes at PVH

In March, Penobscot Valley Hospital will be offering evening classes for the public in First Aid, Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), and Automated External Defibrillator (AED) training.

In these courses, PVH staff will teach you First Aid basics, CPR for adults, children, and infants, and how to use an AED. This training is especially helpful for parents, grandparents, teachers, daycare providers, and teenagers who are planning to babysit.

Night 1 (3/15) covers CPR and AED training:
- CPR for adults, children and infants
- AED use for adults and children
- How to help a choking child and infant

Night 2 (3/17) covers First Aid topics:
- Breathing problems
- Choking in an adult
- Allergic reactions
- Heart attack
- Fainting
- Diabetes and low blood sugar
- Stroke
- Seizure
- Shock

The upcoming courses for First Aid, CPR and AED training will take place on Tuesday, March 15 and Thursday, March 17 from 5:00-8:00pm in Conference Room A on the second floor of Penobscot Valley Hospital. Learn these life-saving skills for just $35 a night or $60 for both evenings. You may request a book to study the programs ahead of time through the PVH Cardiopulmonary Department.
To register, contact the PVH Cardiopulmonary Department at (207) 794-7101. 

Cancer support and resources

Even though you may have great support from your family and friends, research shows that attending support groups as a cancer patient leads to a longer life and greater quality of life. It is liberating to be with other people who have experienced the same issues that you have.

Support groups can:
Help you feel better, more hopeful, and not so alone
Give you a chance to talk about your feelings and work through them
Help you deal with practical problems, such as problems at work or school
Help you cope with side effects of treatment
Some groups are specific to one type of cancer, while others are open to those with any type of cancer. Some are for patients only.
Support groups can also be helpful for children or family members. These groups focus on family concerns such as role changes, relationship changes, financial worries, and how to support the person with cancer. Some groups include both cancer survivors and family members. Our PVH Cancer Support Group is open to both survivors and family members.

But sometimes it is difficult to make it to meetings. Here in Maine, our long cold winters and dark days can make it hard to get out in the evening. Maybe you just don’t feel well enough to pull on those boots and start up the car. In that case, you may want to explore an alternative.

Perhaps you are the type who likes to read and ponder, taking a lot of time to let things sink in. In this case, the American Cancer Society has a great online resource called I Can Cope. This is a series of self-paced classes that can be taken any time, day or night, on such topics as nutrition, managing side effects of treatment, communicating feelings or relieving pain. You can find these classes on Just type “I Can Cope” into the search box and it will lead you to a link to the various topics.

Some people are nervous about attending a group for fear that their emotions may well up, causing them to be uncomfortable, or just feel that their need for privacy won’t allow them to open up in a group setting. For those folks, there is a wonderful, statewide program called the Maine Buddy Program, offered through the Cancer Community Center in South Portland.

This free program assigns you a Buddy from Maine who has experienced a type of cancer similar to yours. These trained, one-on-one peer support people commit to helping you for at least six months, although you can do less if you don’t feel the need for continuing support. There are also caregiver Buddies for you if you are not the patient but are in the caregiver role. You can choose to meet in person, via telephone, or through email, whichever suits your needs best. To get a buddy, either call 1-877-774-2200 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

The Maine Buddy Program is also looking for peer support people willing to volunteer their time. You are not required to provide transportation or run errands, in fact, it is not allowed. You are there to be a support person, a sounding board, and a listener. You can empathize and offer your own experiences. If you are an “experienced” patient or caregiver who wants to give back, please call the above number. If we get enough people, we will be able to hold a training here in Lincoln. Brochures about the Maine Buddy Program are located in our Cancer Support Group bookcase in the PVH Chapel.

PVH Cancer Support Group meetings are the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month from 6-7:15 pm in Conference Room B at Penobscot Valley Hospital, 7 Transalpine Road, Lincoln. Meetings in February are on the 9th and the 23rd. 

PVH staff purchase gifts for nursing home residents

Penobscot Valley Hospital medical technologist Nicole Piché prepares to deliver gifts purchased by staff, family and friends of PVH to area nursing home residents this week. Earlier this month, Nicole contacted employees at Care Ridge Estates, Colonial Acres, Cummings Health Care, and Lakeview Terrace who compiled nearly 40 “wish lists” for their residents.

“My mom used to volunteer at nursing homes and played piano for the residents. Now this is my way of carrying on her spirit and giving back to a deserving group of people who might not otherwise receive gifts,” states Piché. “Many of the area residents are without family and friends, and these may be the only gifts they receive over the holidays. It’ll brighten my day on Christmas morning to think of the joy on these residents’ faces as they open their gifts.”

Other PVH laboratory staff like Helen McReavy have helped Piché organize the lists and gifts. The lab department has also donated two additional boxes of everyday necessities that the residents will enjoy.

Staff of Penobscot Valley Hospital have been purchasing gifts for nursing home residents since 2005, and in that time, have purchased gifts for nearly 300 residents. 

General surgeon and hospital staff visit senior center

December 10 - Penobscot Valley Hospital staff visited the Golden Key Senior Center on Wednesday, December 9 to sample healthy holiday recipes. Dietary director Mark Robinson and dietary manager Christine Muncey prepared a light holiday eggnog and whole wheat sweet potato pancakes for attendees. Crowd favorites were the pancakes and cranberry oatmeal cookies. Recipes are available to view on the hospital Facebook page at

Following the food tasting, PVH general surgeon David Rideout, MD presented a talk on cancer: what it is, how it comes about, incidence by region and treatment methods. The most important message that Dr. Rideout conveyed was that of preventative care and being sure that you seek out primary care and routine testing to manage your health.

Thank you to all those that attended and the Golden Key Senior Center for providing us with the space for this food tasting and presentation. 

PVH general surgeon David Rideout, MD talks to a crowd at the Golden Key Senior Center about cancer and stresses the importance of preventative care like colonoscopies. 

Nar-Anon support group meets at Methodist Church

We do understand

Nar-Anon offers support, compassion, and understanding to people whose friends or family use drugs in unhealthy ways.

These 20 questions allow us to evaluate ourselves to see if Nar-Anon might be right for us. Ask yourself the following questions and then answer them as honestly as you can.

1. Do you find yourself making excuses, lying or covering up for someone?

2. Do you have a reason not to trust this person?

3. Is it becoming difficult for you to believe his/her explanations?

4. Do you lie awake worrying about this person?

5. If it is your child, is he/she missing school often without your knowledge?

6. If it is your spouse or partner, is he/she missing work and leaving bills to pile up?

7. Are your savings mysteriously disappearing? Are items of value missing?

8. Are the unanswered questions causing hostility and undermining your relationship?

9. Are you asking yourself, "What’s wrong?" and "Is it my fault?"

10. Are normal family disagreements becoming hostile and violent?

11. Are your suspicions turning you into a detective and are you afraid of what you may find?

12. Are you canceling your social functions with vague excuses?

13. Are you becoming increasingly reluctant to invite friends to your home?

14. Is concern for this person causing you headaches, a knotty stomach and extreme anxiety?

15. Do minute matters easily irritate this person? Does your whole life seem like a nightmare?

16. Are you unable to discuss the situation with friends and relatives because of embarrassment?

17. Are you frustrated by ineffective attempts to control the situation?

18. Do you overcompensate and try not to make waves?

19. Do you keep trying to make things better and nothing helps?

20. Are the life style and friends of this person changing? Do you ever think they may be using drugs?

If you have answered “Yes” to four or more of these questions, Nar-Anon may be able to give you the answers you are looking for. Confidential meetings are held each Thursday, 6 – 7 p.m. at First United Methodist church, 8 Lee Road, Lincoln. Park on the street or in two nearby parking lots. Come up the ramp on the Route 6 side of the church. For more information call 794-8443. 

PVH Cancer Support Group Opens Lending Library

October 26 - The PVH Cancer Support Group has a new lending library thanks to a generous donation from the PVH Auxiliary. Earlier this month, Cancer Support Group member Geri Nute visited the volunteers to thank them for the oak bookshelf to house the cancer lending library and other resources. The bookshelf was custom made to match the oak furniture in the Chapel at PVH and was donated by Vernon Robichaud of Mattawamkeag.

The lending library includes many books on cancer, specific types of cancer, and free materials to help connect cancer patients and caregivers to resources. The public is welcome to visit the lending library any time, which is located in the Chapel just past the cafeteria at Penobscot Valley Hospital. You may sign out books and return them at your leisure. The group is also accepting donations of books on cancer for others to borrow.

Those suffering with cancer, survivors and caregivers are welcome to join the PVH Cancer Support Group in Conference Room B at Penobscot Valley Hospital on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month, from 6:00-7:15pm. November meetings are the 10th and 24th. For more information about the PVH Cancer Support Group, call 794-7149.  

(front) PVH Auxiliary members stand with the new bookshelf they had built for the Cancer Support Group Lending Library. (l to r) Marie Kilbride, Cancer Support Group member Geri Nute, Linda Wyman. (back) PVH Auxiliary president Jan Davis, and members Marilyn Whitney, Louise Sinclair and Rena Glidden-Rush.


Before we know it, the winter flu season will be here. There are many things we can do to prepare ourselves for what is coming. For the respiratory flu, there is a vaccine (flu shot) which can be administered at your primary care physician’s office or the local pharmacies.

For the norovirus (stomach bug), there is no such vaccine. The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis per year are due to norovirus. Becoming informed about the virus is the best means of preventing the spread of the virus.

Here are the facts from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention that you need to know:

WHAT IS NOROVIRUS: It is a highly contagious group of viruses that causes vomiting and diarrhea in people.

WHO GETS SICK: Anyone can become sick. Severity of symptoms depends on the person’s general health. The very young and the elderly are apt to be more severely affected.

HOW DO PEOPLE BECOME SICK: The virus is found in the stool and vomit of the sick people. You can become ill with the virus in several ways: by eating food or drinking liquids that are contaminated with the virus; by touching surfaces or objects contaminated and then placing their hands in their mouth; or by having close contact with another person who is sick. Examples of close contact are, sharing food or utensils, being present while someone is throwing up, drinking liquids from the same cup or bottle, shaking hands.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS: Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and some stomach cramping. Illness comes on suddenly and may last one to two days. Children tend to have more vomiting than adults.

WHEN DO SYMPTOMS APPEAR: Symptoms usually start about 24 to 48 hours after swallowing the virus, but can appear as early as 10 hours after exposure to the virus.

HOW LONG CAN VIRUS BE PASSED ON TO OTHERS: Sick persons can spread the virus from the moment they begin feeling sick and for at least three days after the illness ends and sometimes up to two weeks after feeling better.

HOW SERIOUS IS THE ILLNESS: Most people recover in one to two days. Sometimes people are unable to drink enough fluids lost due to vomiting and diarrhea. These people may need medical attention. Symptoms of dehydration include dark colored urine, decrease in urine, dry mouth and throat, and feeling dizzy when standing up. Children who are dehydrated may cry with few or no tears and be unusually fussy or sleepy. Dehydration symptoms are usually only seen among the very young, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems.

HOW CAN ILLNESS BE PREVENTED: You can decrease your chances of illness by washing your hands with soap and water and dry hands with a disposable towel after toilet visits, after changing diapers, before eating or preparing foods, after touching animals. Carefully wash fruits and vegetables. Cook oysters thoroughly. Thoroughly clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces with a bleach based household cleaner. Immediately wash clothing or linens that may be contaminated using hot soapy water and dry at the highest temperature possible.

IF YOU BECOME ILL WITH NOROVIRUS: Stay home to avoid spreading the norovirus to friends and coworkers. Do not prepare foods for others while you have symptoms and for three days after you recover.

Diligent hand washing cannot be stressed enough to prevent the spread of throughout the year. Let us do all we can to stay healthy during this coming winter/fluseason.  

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