May 30, 2023

The healing power of shared cancer experience

Peer mentoring program matches new cancer patients with others who’ve gone through comparably intense treatment.

Since the program began in the Northwest, mentors have reached out to over 40 patients.

Ken Callaway was treated for 3 months in the summer of 2021 for a form of head and neck cancer. He hadn’t told many people he’d been sick; he was happy to leave the whole thing behind him.

Then one night after his treatment had ended, Callaway was having dinner with his wife at a restaurant when he got a phone call. It was a person who formerly had cancer who’d volunteered for Kaiser Permanente’s head and neck oncology peer mentoring program in Portland, Oregon.

“I ended up on the phone with this guy for an hour and a half,” Callaway said. “He had a similar cancer, years before mine, and he went through a similar treatment.”

Motivated by mentoring

The peer mentoring program matches new patients who have cancer with mentors who’ve gone through comparably intense treatment. The mentors are volunteers who offer 1-to-1 support through outreach calls. They also provide emotional support and help patients understand what treatment and recovery will be like.

There’s some clinical evidence that shows peer mentoring for cancer patients leads to better outcomes. Evidence also suggests that this kind of support helps patients follow their treatment plan, improves results, and leads to fewer hospital visits.

Since the program began in the Northwest, mentors have reached out to over 40 patients. The program now includes 4 mentors, with another 2 joining soon.

A need — and a want for connection

“When someone is newly diagnosed with cancer or receiving treatment for cancer, there is a huge emphasis placed on the physical aspect of their care,” said Kristi Goodwin, RN, the Kaiser Permanente head and neck cancer nurse navigator who spearheaded the launch of the program in 2021.

“It’s important that we take a holistic approach, addressing a patient’s physical and mental health needs,” she said.

The power of shared experience

Todd Slenning, a Kaiser Permanente member from Oregon, is a mentor who has worked with more patients than anyone in the program. Some days Slenning wants to leave behind his cancer experience.

“But I don’t always want to forget,” he said. “I want to remember that I beat cancer and I want to share that with other people so they can beat it too.”

Slenning was Callaway’s mentor and his encouragement carried extra weight because of their shared experience. Having a cancer survivor as a mentor gave Callaway a different perspective and a better idea of what came next.

“When we talked it was like talking to an old friend,” Callaway said. “When I wanted to tell my story, he listened, and he knew when to talk about his experience. But he was careful to let me say what I needed to say.”

Callaway had ignored the outreach calls early in his treatment. But now, a year later, he’s grateful that Slenning didn’t give up.

“It helps to know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Callaway said, “to know at some point this is going to turn around and you’ll start to feel better.”