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Sharp Health News

Virtual support for patients with cancer

Aug. 26, 2020

Marlene Wendel, Linda Hutkin-Slade, Cheryl Whittington Fogel and Memo Haro Miramontes, licensed clinical social workers at Sharp HealthCare

L to R: Marlene Wendel, Linda Hutkin-Slade, Cheryl Whittington Fogel and Memo Haro Miramontes, licensed clinical social workers at Sharp HealthCare who provide virtual support to patients living with cancer.

A Navy wife for 30 years, Cynthia Swann is strong and confident. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2017, she told everyone, “I got this.”

“But I didn’t,” she says. “I told myself I should be able to handle this, and it was difficult for me to admit that I needed help.”

Cynthia received treatment at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, under the care of Dr. Reema Batra, a board-certified oncologist affiliated with Sharp. Two months after her diagnosis, Cynthia had a total bilateral mastectomy, which successfully removed all signs of the disease.

“After surgery, I wanted to get on with my life,” she says.

But despite being cancer-free and physically well, Cynthia found it increasingly difficult to focus and manage her emotions after treatment.

“I couldn’t understand why I was feeling the way I was, and I just couldn’t move on,” she says.

According to experts, cancer can trigger strong emotional responses. It’s not uncommon for people living with cancer to experience a range of emotions, from feelings of isolation or loneliness to sadness or fear, which can interfere with daily life and lead to anxiety and depression.

“Recovering from and living with cancer is just as much about healing your mind as your physical body,” says Linda Hutkin-Slade, a licensed clinical social worker with specialization in oncology at Sharp Grossmont who works directly with patients with cancer. “That’s where support groups and classes are helpful.”

Cynthia was fortunate to have a good support network — her husband was there for her, as well as her three daughters and friends. But it wasn’t until she started attending cancer support groups and classes at Sharp Grossmont’s David & Donna Long Cancer Center that she began to feel whole again.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.

Cancer isn’t pausing for COVID-19
When the coronavirus pandemic reached San Diego in March 2020, Sharp’s in-person support groups and classes were canceled to comply with government restrictions to slow the spread of the virus. That’s when Hutkin-Slade and her colleagues, Marlene Wendel and Cheryl Fogel, who are also licensed clinical social workers specializing in oncology at Sharp Memorial Hospital, teamed up to offer group classes virtually.

“Isolation has been a serious concern during the pandemic, especially for patients with cancer,” says Hutkin-Slade. “So we developed online classes and support groups for patients and loved ones to stay connected with each other during a time when we’ve all been required to stay at home and social distance.”

She adds that patients with cancer are already in a high-risk group. Like everyone else, their normal ways of coping — visiting people or going out — aren’t available. So, while they can lean on skills they’ve learned while dealing with their cancer, they still have the normal worries and fears we all have as we face COVID-19.

“The sudden shutdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic provided the perfect opportunity for us to launch the program quickly since we had already had the tools in place,” says Fogel, who works at the Laurel Amtower Cancer Institute and Neuro-Oncology Center at Sharp Memorial.

“In the pre-pandemic days we had patients travel to our center from as far away as Orange, Imperial and Riverside counties. They made the drive because they valued the service and enjoyed the relationships they developed with fellow patients and care partners,” Fogel says.

For Cynthia, Sharp’s virtual support groups and classes have been a lifeline.

“Still being able to connect virtually is very important to me, especially during the pandemic. I feel better knowing that I’m not alone. That it’s perfectly normal to have feelings, regardless of how strong I am, and that it’s a normal process that I’m going through,” she says.

“Having people to talk to that have gone through the same thing or are still going through it makes a big difference,” Cynthia says. “We can talk about questions or problems we run across during all this. But there’s lots of laughter too. If it was a bunch of people moping around saying ‘woe is me,’ I probably wouldn’t attend. It’s not like that at all. It’s very, very uplifting.”

“Recovering from cancer treatments can be a difficult experience for the patient, family and care partners,” says Fogel. “Providing a venue for them to get support from the comfort of their home has become a valuable tool in their recovery.”

Looking to the future
Overall, the virtual response has been positive, and participation is high. One webinar included 50 people; typically 18-20 people attend the in-person class.

“One advantage is that participants are able to attend from the comfort of their own homes. They can relax, use the bathroom and not have to worry about traffic. There are participants from all over the county,” says Hutkin-Slade.

“I live out in Jacumba Hot Springs. It’s a quite a distance, so I wouldn’t mind attending virtually after COVID restrictions are lifted,” says Cynthia.

Wendel agrees and shares, “It's been so gratifying to see how the vast majority of our usual participants — of all ages and backgrounds — have been willing and able to get up to speed using the technology for meeting online. In our Living With Advanced Cancer Support Group, a member who was just home from an intensive hospital stay was able to join our meeting online and talk about their experience. That wouldn't have been possible with the in-person group; they would have had to stay home and miss the meeting.”

“Our patients reiterate again and again how grateful they are to have these support groups available to them,” says Wendel. “They don't have to feel alone in their cancer journey, especially in the midst of an extremely isolating pandemic.”

Sharp HealthCare offers a range of support groups and classes for patients with cancer and their loved ones.

For the news media: To talk with a licensed clinical social worker about cancer and support groups for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at erica.carlson@sharp.com.

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