Keck Medicine Summer 2011

Adjusting to a New Normal


Support groups lead the way in helping some patients and familiesbrought on by disease or medical treatment

by Mary Ellen Zenka
Photos by Phillip Channing

Awkward conversations may occur after patients tell their friends and family that they have been diagnosed with a serious illness.  Medical treatment can sometimes result in patients, and even their families, having to cope with a “new normal.” For some people, the situation can be overwhelming. The USC-owned hospitals offer options that may help.

“There are a variety of approaches that can contribute unique and powerful avenues for support and comfort,” says Susan Waters, licensed clinical social worker and co-facilitator of the new Breast Cancer Support Program at USC Norris Cancer Hospital.

“The support of loved ones can be extremely helpful. Some patients and families benefit from professional counseling, as well. And for many, the sense of belonging and understanding, which is shared by members of a support group, is invaluable. Each individual has to decide what is the best fit for him or her. A combination of several approaches may provide the
best outcome.”
HEAD AND NECK SURGERY SUPPORT  When Blair Franks, 62, learned he had throat cancer several years ago, an enormity of emotions and questions took center stage in his life. Franks became aware that this type of cancer treatment would at least temporarily impair him and could possibly cause permanent, visible damage to his head and neck. Although he was treated successfully by Uttam Sinha, M.D., chief and residency program director in the Department of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, Franks thought his long-term recovery would be aided if he could connect with others facing similar issues and challenges.

One year into Franks’ recovery, the Head and Neck Cancer Support Program was founded by Sinha and his staff, and today, Franks is the volunteer at its helm. “Head and neck cancers are called the cancers of the lonely,” says Franks. “People often retreat to their homes because these cancers, and their treatments, affect how people project themselves to the world. They often will remain disfigured, and may have either short- or long-term difficulties with eating and speaking. As a result, many patients isolate themselves.”

Five years later, Sinha continues to recognize the profound impact this support has on his patients. “This group gives an opportunity for me and many of my colleagues to treat our patients’ health as a whole, not just treat their cancer,” says Sinha. “We discuss many subjects pertaining to a patient’s psycho-social health, and we frequently have speakers such as nutritionists or speech therapists to help people adjust to the challenges.”

The group meets monthly with 20-40 people in attendance. Patients are encouraged to attend before their treatment even begins and to keep attending long after their treatment is complete. According to Sinha, there is a kind of mentoring atmosphere whereby those who are much further along in their treatment and recovery help to guide the others who have just been diagnosed.

“By encouraging mentoring, we find that patients are led through this process by those with real life experience, and it gives them comfort,” Sinha adds. “Most of all, our program celebrates life. By maintaining a focus on that celebration, I really see my
patients’ ability to cope and thrive increase.”

“Most of all, our program celebrates life."

BARIATRIC SURGERY SUPPORT  For millions of Americans a trip to the doctor’s office means facing their obesity. Or not facing it. Martha Hynes, 56, understood that feeling for years and made a brave choice to make health her priority. She turned to Namir Katkhouda, M.D., chief, division of general and laparoscopic surgery at USC University Hospital,  director of bariatric surgery and professor of medicine at the Keck School, to help her achieve a total change of lifestyle through gastric bypass surgery.

Now 160 pounds lighter, Hynes credits her regular attendance at support group meetings for helping keep the weight off. Hynes admits she was initially uneasy with the idea of a public group meeting.

“I am a private person, and so many issues surrounding weight are intimate and personal. I spent a long time soul searching to decide how I was going to make my surgery a success,” says Hynes. “I started attending the Bariatric Support Group one month after my surgery. The reassuring staff allowed my trust to build over time, and they didn’t make
me talk until I was ready. Each month about 30 people participate, and we really help each other.”

Katkhouda encourages all his patients to attend, even those who have not yet had surgery. Support is given by guest speakers, who discuss pertinent topics such as exercise, vitamin support, nutrition, psychology and motivation.

According to Katkhouda, “The support group makes patients feel comfortable and keeps them motivated. They realize they are not alone with their weight challenge. They can exchange views and share tips and experiences. This is a life-changing operation, and I want to follow these people for life. By attending the group each month, patients stay connected to our staff and have long-term success. It is also a key component of long-term weight loss.”

BREAST CANCER SUPPORT  The USC Norris Cancer Hospital recently launched a program, consistent with the mission of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, aimed at saving lives through patient support and advocacy. Breast cancer patient attendees benefit from information about treatment innovations, psychosocial support and creative paths to healing.  
“It is a variation of support groups in the more traditional manner,” social worker Waters says, explaining the approach. The group, which is co-facilitated by Michele Prince, licensed clinical social worker, “offers a series of workshops that focus on a specific topic or theme each time. One session may present a lecture by a medical expert, while others offer experiential participation, such as art therapy, creative writing and HealthRHYTHMS drumming.”
Co-leader of Women’s Breast Health and professor of medicine at the Keck School, Debu Tripathy, M.D., sees many advantages for patients who attend support groups. “People often go through steps that are similar to grieving when they receive a cancer diagnosis. Many don’t feel a support group is right for them, but we really encourage them to attend and discover for themselves what type of activities work for them. Over time, patients are able to tailor an approach that meets
their needs. Our education and therapies help patients cope with all the changes in their lives, both temporary and permanent,” he says.  •

Groups for Patients and Families

For information on the Bariatric Support Group at USC University Hospital, call 323-442-6868.
For information on the Head and Neck Surgery Group at USC Norris Cancer Hospital, call 323-442-5790.

The USC Norris Cancer Hospital Social Services Department offers a variety of support groups and programs for patients and their families. All groups are free. For information, call 323-865-3150.

• Bladder Cancer Educational and Support Group
• Breast Cancer Support Program
• Colorectal Cancer Support Group
• J-Pouch Support Group
• Look Good … Feel Better
• Patient/Family Navigation Program
• Prostate Cancer Educational Forum
• Prostate Cancer Support Group – For Men Only
• Prostate – Significant Others
• Yoga

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