Susan Hand, 73, has had it with hospitals and cancer. Her husband Charlie, 79, battled colon cancer, tonsil cancer and unrelated heart trouble during the last year of life. He passed away suddenly last August. At about the same time Hand’s sister’s brain cancer returned, resulting in several hospitalizations at Duke this spring.
“Right now I’m surrounded by it,” said Hand, who also lost a daughter-in-law to cancer (ovarian). “It’s been a bad year, but thank God for Patrick Plumeri.”
Patrick Plumeri, MS, LMFT, is one of seven medical family therapists affiliated with the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program, which is part of Duke Cancer Institute’s Center For Supportive Care and Survivorship. The program provides individual, couples and family therapy services at no charge — a practice, unique at Duke, that dates back more than 30 years.
Hand was referred to Plumeri last spring at one of the lowest points in the couple’s lives.
“Charlie had recovered from colon cancer, but the poor guy was having an awful time with his tonsil cancer, so we decided to talk to a family therapist,” said Hand, who said she had to prod her husband to go. “We saw Patrick only once or twice, but it was great just having somebody to talk to who understood what we were going through and was willing to walk us through it.”
Charlie’s death a few months later, from complications of atrial fibrillation, took Hand by surprise.
Plumeri said he was available if she wanted to talk again, but Hand said that she was okay and didn’t need to talk. Months later — visiting her ill sister often, and still learning to live without her husband — Hand changed her mind.
“About two months ago, when my daughter-in-law died, I thought, ‘I’ve got to talk to somebody,’” said Hand, in an interview this winter. “It was just too much, and so hard for me to see my son go through this. So I started making appointments to see Patrick again. He’s the kind of guy who I know I can go to and say ‘This is what I’m thinking, am I crazy?’”
Plumeri sees individual patients, caregivers and families at his office at Duke Cancer Center Raleigh. He started his career helping families cope with mental illness and substance abuse, then when he joined Duke 12 years ago, transitioned to helping patients and their loved ones cope with cancer.
The kind of counseling that therapists like Plumeri provide is not psychoanalysis, and they don’t diagnose. However, individual, couples and family therapy can continue as long as conditions warrant.
“Our medical family therapy program is a wonderful option for our patients, especially in a hospital or a medical system as large as Duke,” said Plumeri, who also facilitates a different cancer support group each week. “A lot of the feedback we get from the people we help is that they feel cared about not just cared for. When people say, they couldn’t imagine going through this without my help, that’s rewarding.”
Plumeri said he sometimes compares his role to that of a park ranger.
“The people I see have to pick their path; I’m just going to show them the road signs, where the water is, and guide them through the pitfalls along the path,” he said. “Ultimately, I want them to be comfortable with their choices.”
Hand says she’s learned to take one day at a time rather than make too many plans. She’s also learned to be kinder to herself and to take a break when visits to her sister’s hospital bedside get to be too upsetting. And she’s “finally coming around to” not having total control over life.
A resident of Raleigh for the past 23 years, Hand relies on a support system of friends, her knitting, and her Catholic faith to help her relax and keep her emotions from spinning out of control. She also knows she can lean on her six children and ten grandchildren in good and bad times.
She has Plumeri for extra support.
“I just cannot believe that they don’t make this mandatory for patients and their loved ones,” said Hand. “Not only do they help you with ways to cope, they truly listen.”
The Duke Cancer Patient Support Program provides services throughout the cancer experience — from suspicion of a cancer diagnosis through the time of diagnosis, treatment, recovery, and survival, as well as through the circumstances surrounding end-of-life. In addition to individual, couple, and family therapy, services include: monthly cancer support groups, self-image resources, pet therapy, child-life services including KidsCan! Program, recreational therapy, and more. All of these support services are provided at no charge to patients, caregivers, survivors and loved ones.
Patients, caregivers, survivors and loved ones are invited to learn more at Duke Cancer Institute's annual Supportive Care and Survivorship Day, to be held on Tuesday, June 5, at Duke Cancer Center Raleigh and on Wednesday, June 6, at Duke Cancer Center Durham.