The first day of chemotherapy treatment can ignite feelings of anxiety, sadness and loneliness, and under usual conditions, patients with cancer are encouraged to bring a friend or family member with them to help them through the ordeal.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has altered that framework, necessitating safety measures in outpatient cancer-treatment clinics that preclude patients from having loved ones physically with them while they are receiving chemotherapy.
To address the isolation of patients going through treatment alone under the physical-distancing guidelines, the Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology has spearheaded a project in which cancer survivors write anonymous letters of hope, wisdom, comfort and encouragement to new patients. “Even if they aren’t physically there, your friends, your family, your loved ones are with you through this, sending love, sending prayers, sending healing energy your way,” one survivor wrote. “And I want you to know that, in my way I am with you too, as are many others who have been through this before you.”
They also offer tips based on their experience: “Bring with you some of the comforts of home — a favorite quilt, cozy socks (you know, those fluffy ones?), snacks you enjoy, something to read, or music to listen to,” another survivor wrote. “Cry if you need to, but laugh when you can,” wrote another. Each survivor also offers a song that served as a source of inspiration for them. The letters have been compiled into a booklet that is presented to patients — along with a link to a playlist of the inspirational songs (The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkle and “You Will Be Found” from the musical Dear Evan Hansen, among them) that can be accessed through the center’s website — on their first day of chemotherapy at UCLA Health’s 16 hematology/oncology outpatient clinics throughout Southern California.
“From the Chemo Chair: From My Heart to Your Heart” was the brainchild of Sydney Siegel, MSW, a Simms/Mann psycho-oncology MSW fellow. “As clinicians who work with patients and family members undergoing cancer treatment, we have spent a great deal of time in the infusion space and are very familiar with how scary and overwhelming those first appointments are — and how much having the presence of loved ones makes it tolerable,” says Kauser Ahmed, PhD, director of the Simms/Mann Center.
“Starting cancer treatment can be frightening for patients,” says John A. Glaspy, MD, MPH, Simms/Mann Family Foundation Chair in Integrative Oncology and director of the clinical research unit at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Bringing a family member or friend to the visit helps to allay fears and promote peace of mind, but COVID-19 has taken that away from us. This project is a way for prior patients to extend a hand to incoming patients — a chance for these new patients to hear from someone who knows what it takes to get through it and who can offer reassurance and show that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Humans are social animals, and most of us deal better with anxiety and fear in small groups than we do alone.”
“From the Chemo Chair” epitomizes the mission of the Simms/Mann Center, a multidisciplinary, integrative center providing whole-person care that addresses the physical, psychological and spiritual needs of cancer patients and their families. “We view patients not just as a diagnosis or set of symptoms, but also as complex beings,” Dr. Ahmed says. “We try to help them tap into their own sense of resilience and meaning and to understand that support is not a sign of weakness but a way to empower them as they go through this journey.”
— Dan Gordon