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By Stephen Ornes

Survivors Reach Out

When cancer survivors lend a hand to other patients, everyone benefits

By Stephen Ornes


In 1998, Dana-Farber started the Adult Patient and Family Advisory Council, a group of volunteers—all cancer survivors and their family members—who are deeply involved in the operation of the cancer center. Hoffman Toffler says these individuals participate in major decisions, such as hiring executives or planning significant changes to the institution.

“They are literally designing our new building,” she says. “They’re working side by side with our staff, helping us figure out how to reduce wait time and identifying ways to make sure patients are being notified about advanced care directives.”

Hoffman Toffler says that at major health institutions, when experts are brought together to tackle a project, the group often lacks an important perspective: that of the person at the receiving end of care. “If you have patients and family members involved, you get it right the first time,” she says. “Having patients involved ultimately improves efficiency, is cost-effective and improves patient satisfaction. On all those levels, it’s a no-brainer.”

At Dana-Farber, volunteer members of the council have seats on almost all of the hospital’s committees. Hoffman Toffler says cancer survivors bring an important perspective from years of receiving care, and that expertise should be used to inform the development of new programs.

Volunteerism by cancer survivors can influence the future of cancer care, as well as make a personal impact on a newly diagnosed patient who feels scared and lost. In addition, survivors turn their experience into guidance and wisdom.

“Volunteers get back more than they give,” says Greer at the ACS. “It’s a great self-esteem booster to raise somebody’s confidence levels and realize you can significantly impact someone else’s life in a positive way.”

Muñoz has a similar outlook. “We know of so many women who never survive this horrific disease,” she says. “For some of us, we find ways to live in gratitude, and when we give back, the guilt of surviving diminishes. In looking for ways to help others, we in turn emotionally help ourselves.”



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