Provide information for cancer patients

Rather than discourage patients from investigating alternative cancer treatments, the education department at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC, provides opportunities for learning.

To help educate patients, staff created a guide to complementary and alternative therapies for cancer patients that is available on nursing units, in clinics, and at the patient library. The guide includes sections on how patients can find good information, how to evaluate the information, and how to make appropriate choices.

Also, staff created a cancer education series that includes information on complementary and alternative therapies. The teacher doesn’t simply discuss alternative treatments such as shark cartilage but gives the patient valuable tools to help him or her make choices.

The teacher discusses what constitutes a conventional therapy and what is considered a clinical trial or research therapy. Also, the teacher explains what makes a treatment a complementary or alternative therapy and how a treatment might shift from one category to another. Plenty of classroom time is set aside to discuss the therapies people have tried or are considering.

"We feel like there are a lot of things besides pills, surgery, and radiation therapy that may have some benefit to people, and we want them to be aware of and use these things in ways that will be helpful to them," says Kerry Harwood, RN, MSN, director of the cancer patient education program at Duke University.

For that reason, the class series also covers the psychological, spiritual, nutritional, and physical approaches to cancer care. For example, in the spiritual class, a pastoral counselor helps participants explore their relationship to God in the context of their experience with cancer. For those who don’t have a traditional religious background, the counselor helps them explore the things that help them feel connected to something larger than themselves.

The free one-hour classes, which are held every Tuesday afternoon, rotate through a two-month cycle. People can attend one class or all eight in the series. Fliers listing the series are posted in the hospital and clinics. Also, the local newspaper prints class titles for two weeks in advance. People who attend one session can obtain a list of all eight classes.

The cancer education program at Duke University Medical Center splits its resources into two categories: essential education and elective education.

"The essential education covers such things as post-op instructions or information on the side effects of a medication. They are basics that everyone in that situation is going to need, and they will all need the information at a certain predictable time," explains Harwood.

[Editor’s note: For more information on the cancer patient education program at Duke University Medical Center contact: Kerry Harwood, Director, Cancer Patient Education Program, DUMC Box 3677, Durham, NC 27710. Telephone: (919) 681-5288. E-mail:]