Sam Donaldson, a veteran journalist who was an anchor and reporter for ABC News for 42 years, has experienced the giving spirit of caregivers and the challenges they face.
After he was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma in 1995, his wife Jan Smith, cared for him. Donaldson, 78, who has commented publicly that he is forever in his wife's debt for her help and support, spoke with AgingCare about caregivers' challenges and his battle with skin cancer.
AgingCare.com: What difficulties do spouses and family members have as caregivers?
Sam Donaldson: Obviously, if a patient is getting worse and is perhaps even toward end-of-life, there are the physical tasks that need to be done. But one of the big things is the mental aspect of caregiving. One of the big things is the comfort coming from the atmosphere around which a cancer patient is surrounded. From my experience, the worse thing in the world you can do for your friends or your family is to go into, "Oh, woe are you, I'm so sorry, this is so terrible, I really feel for you."
Oh, hogwash. Now you can't be insincere, saying things like, "Oh, it's a jolly day today" (in a sing-song voice). But carry on the normal activities with the normal reactions. Treat people as you normally would. Be cheerful and of course, be optimistic. We all love optimistic doctors.
AgingCare.com: What's a way you've seen doctors show optimism?
Donaldson: I once interviewed a doctor who headed the Lombardi Cancer Center in Washington D.C. I asked him, "What do you do when you know a patient is headed south and the chances are slim that the person will survive?" He said, "First of all, I ask them, what would you like to know about your condition?" He said, sometimes, believe it or not, patients do not want to hear that they are headed toward death. The doctor told me that if a patient says, "Doctor, am I going to live or not?" he cannot lie to them. But if he can say to them he knows people who had the same thing that the patient had who are walking around today who are alive and well, the doctor's patient would say, "Well God bless you, doctor." Now, the doctor could have said, "You have about a 26 percent chance of survival." And they would be devastated. We like optimistic doctors.
My own doctor at the time came in beaming after three days and said, "It couldn't be better. It just couldn't be better. Only one lymph node involved and all the surrounding tissue was clean." I said, "Doctor, it couldn't be better if I didn't have any cancer at all."
AgingCare.com: Is that why you, as a survivor, are you're willing to share your experience – to give optimism to others?
Donaldson: Well, that's too altruistic. My brother died of cancer in 1969 at the age of 49. My mother died of cancer in 1988 age of 93. During that time, I wasn't quite sure why people didn't want to talk about cancer. They talked about influenza. They talked about polio. Cancer is a disease and cancer kills you. What is unclean about cancer? By the time I was born, it had been established that cancer did not come from drinking bad whiskey or consorting with bad people. It was so mysterious and it killed so many people and you weren't quite weren't sure why. And you didn't know in the old days how you got it and why you got it. By the time I was diagnosed, there was absolutely no reason in the world not to talk about cancer.
AgingCare.com: Who talked to you about their cancer experience?
Donaldson: On a Monday morning, (his cancer news) was in a newspaper here in Washington. The phone rang and the assistant said Sen. Connie Mack (of Florida, now retired) was on the phone. I knew him, but I had never covered him. We were not social friends. He said, "Sam, I see in the paper that you have a melanoma diagnosis." I said, "Yes, senator I have." He said, "Don't worry about it. Six years ago, I had a number of melanoma lesions all over my body. They had to take them off." He said, "I'm fine and you're going to be just fine." Well, I can't tell you what that call did for me.