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Words for comfort: Books helping patients during their fight against cancer

SHARE Words for comfort: Books helping patients during their fight against cancer

SALT LAKE CITY — Cancer is a word that has affected the lives of all of us in some way and is associated with so many other words: pain, treatment, doctors, chemo, remission, hope, struggle, triumph, family, support, endurance and, sadly, death.

There are two words, however, that you may not have associated with cancer: books and reading. At the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, books and reading play a special role in treatment.

Huntsman Cancer Institute, part of the University of Utah health sciences, is a leader in cancer research, education and treatment. There are many strategies employed by the institute as part of its "mission of hope," each designed to help alleviate the suffering of cancer patients and their families.

One such effort is to provide books and magazines to read during the long hours of wait and treatment time.

"Cancer treatment involves a lot of waiting and sitting," Carol Higginson, a senior clinical research coordinator for HCI, explained.

"I see patients that have radiation treatments five days a week, each session about 20 minutes long, as well as chemotherapy sessions once a week that can last up to eight hours."

For these treatments, patients have limited mobility. Higginson also said that patients, in addition to treatments, have one to three doctor appointments a week and weekly blood work appointments, which vary in length.

"We wanted a way to make the wait-room time better, to minimize the effect of wait time during treatments and also to improve the emotional impact of what our patients and their families are going through," Blanca Raphael, manager of Patient and Family Resources, said. "So we started collecting magazines and books."

Employees of HCI constantly collect reading material, dropping it in designated milk crates placed in the office areas. These are then collected and sorted by volunteers and distributed to the eight clinics. Four of these clinics have book carts with signs that read, "Free books. Please take one."

HCI patients don't have to worry about returning the free books. However, most will return a book, plus more.

"Patients always bring back more books. It's a pay-it-forward kind of thing. The goodness is contagious," Raphael reported. She hopes to have more book carts in the future.

Anyone who loves to read knows the joy of escaping into another world for a time, letting go of worries and stress. "Reading is a calming distraction for our patients, so we do all we can to help facilitate it," Raphael said.

Jane Ellsworth was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in August 2003, when she was 19 years old.

"Reading was very important to me as a cancer patient," Ellsworth said. "It was a way to pass the time and a way to escape from the unpleasant parts of my chemo reality."

Books have also helped families come together during the cancer-treatment process. "When I got too sick and weak to hold up a book for long periods of time, my mom would read aloud to me," Ellsworth recalled. "Reading was such a comfort and brought me peace at a really hard time of my life."

Thanks to successful treatment, Ellsworth has been cancer-free for six years and has two children. She continues to love reading.

HCI's book drive shows the power and value of books and reading and is an example of people coming together to help others.

Donations of books and magazines are welcomed by the hospital.

Needed are books in good condition (quick reads preferred), magazines current within the last three months (more magazines appropriate for men are greatly needed), and books on tape (big need).

Donations may be dropped off at the information desk, just inside the hospital's main entrance at 1950 Circle of Hope at the University of Utah. Donation receipts for tax purposes are given.

Teri Harman writes and reads from home amid the chaos of three young children. Her bi-weekly column, Book Matters, appears on ksl.com and in the Deseret News. For more book fun, visit book-matters.com.