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A Diagnosis is More than a Medical Condition

Karen, a single mom with two children, ages 8 and 12, worked as an office manager in a small company.   She was taken by surprise when her annual mammogram showed that she had a suspicious abnormality.  She became quite panicked when the biopsy came back positive and her oncologist advocated immediate action.  The oncologist described the cancer as a Stage IIIA and recommended surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

Karen went to her employer and explained the situation.  He told her that she could, of course, get time off but that she needed to check how much of her medical expenses would be covered by the insurance company.  After speaking with the insurance company she found that, as long as she stayed with physicians who were in her network, her out-of-pocket expenses could be kept to a minimum.  She would still have to pay for some tests, for getting back and forth to appointments and, possibly, other items as well.  Karen was worried that she had not covered everything she needed to know.  She looked at the website cancer.org and realized that she had much to learn.  She called her doctor’s office and asked for a recommendation of a person or an organization in Westchester knowledgable about cancer that could help her.  The nurse in the oncologist’s office had several suggestions.  Karen reached a patient advocate in one organization that was able to give her clear answers.

Paying for treatment was not Karen’s only non-medical issue.  She was especially concerned about her children – things like not disrupting their schedule, finding the right words to talk to them about her illness, getting food in the house, feeding them, and getting them off to school in the morning.  She would need to cancel their upcoming vacation week with their father in Florida.  She didn’t know how tired she would be from the chemo and what she would be able to continue to do with her children as usual and what would need to be cancelled or rearranged in their activities and appointments.  She was also concerned about getting back and forth to doctors and treatment appointments, managing her household, making sure her cat was cared for, and much more.  Just thinking about all the pieces made her exhausted and confused.

Immediately after the suspicious mammogram, Karen had called her closest friend, Jean.  Jean had promised to stay by her no matter what.  When the diagnosis was confirmed, Jean offered to make any phone calls and emailing that Karen wanted to pass on to her.  They sat down to make a list of everything that they thought might be needed, knowing well that adjustments were likely as time went by.  They also discussed how much direct contact Karen wanted with friends who were likely to reach out and what Karen wanted Jean to communicate to them about her illness and about the help and questions she would want from them.

Using the free Internet site LotsaHelpingHands, Jean organized the parents of the children’s classmates to help with the pick-up and drop-off schedule and to keep track of after-school activities and homework.  It made it easy for Jean to  coordinate Karen’s friends to arrange meals delivered on a regular basis, drivers for medical appointments, errands completed, and visits for Karen.

As it turned out, Karen tolerated the chemo quite well and was able to continue working part-time throughout her treatment.  After her treatments ended several months later, Karen invited all her friends and helpers to a celebration at her house.  She was grateful to her medical team but felt that she would not have been able to get through this illness on a personal level without the support of her friends and others in the community who had come to her aid.

Editorial comment:  If Karen had not had a network of friends to help her out, she may have been able to find similar support from her faith organization – many temples, churches and mosques do outreach for their congregants who are in difficult situations.  She could also have asked for help from one of the organizations in Westchester that gives support to cancer patients.  She and others, depending on age, income and status, can also contact Westchester government, Veteran’s Health Administration, and Aging-in-Place organizations for assistance.

Many hospitals in Westchester have a cancer navigator to assist patients.

Additional information regarding Westchester organizations is available in Providers and Resources.