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Infocáncer, the AEEC’s free telephone number, turns 30

Marta Herreras lets the patient cry and vent freely. She does not try to relieve him with hackneyed recommendations, such as facing the illness with optimism or growing in adversity. On the other end of the phone line there is a person who suffers from loneliness, fear, feelings of helplessness, discomfort due to the side effects of chemotherapy… Herreras, a telephone agent for the Infocáncer service, knows how to listen and gives time for the interlocutor to calm down and redo. «We tell him that it is normal for him to be sick and distressed. They have detected a disease like cancer and it is normal to be like this,” says this worker at the advice line set up by the Spanish Association Against Cancer (AECC), a free service that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If Marta Herreras detects that the requester for help requires medical information, legal support or the services of a social worker, she refers the person to level 2 professionals, in which there are two doctors, four psychologists, three social workers, a nurse and a lawyer.

The telephone number (900 100 036) is free and has national coverage. There are only two services in the world that operate 24 hours a day, those sponsored in the US by the American Cancer Society and in Spain by the AECC. The Spaniard clarifies doubts about diagnoses and prognosis, but does not offer a second medical opinion, nor prescribe treatments nor recommend therapeutic options. «We had observed that throughout the week there are some intervals in which the patient feels neglected. At night they do not usually have their support network active, and something very similar happens on weekends, days when the social and health services that support cancer patients are closed,” says Patrizia Bressanello, psycho-oncologist and head of Infocáncer. in the AECC.

Above, Patrizia Bressanello, head of Infocáncer. Below, Marta Herreras (right), telephone agent of the service, and Damián Castañeda, social worker.

VIRGINIA CARRASCO

The fact of being at the doors of the operating room is a factor that triggers anxiety among patients, and if we add to this the panic of being alone, without close relatives and at an advanced age, desperation and helplessness increase. This is where Infocáncer operates, a service that has 28 telephone agents, assigned to what is called level 1 team, in charge of providing relief to the patient and detecting needs. The most difficult cases are then referred to the level 2 team, which provides specialized help.

Damián Castañeda is a social worker, he has been at Infocáncer for three years and he has confirmed that, apart from the serious health problems caused by a tumor, cancer too often results in a loss of income. According to data from the AECC, oncological processes cause poverty in 25% of the working-age population. And then there is the eternal problem of inequality in access to treatments, depending on the autonomous community in which one resides. «Now I have a patient who has to move from one province to another to receive radiotherapy, which is provided every day. The corresponding Administration pays for the taxi trip, but his physical condition does not allow continuous transfers. Since he does not have accommodation in the place where the therapy is given, the association is going to provide him with a place where he can stay with his family, which saves him 200 kilometers of round trip travel,” explains the social worker.

Listening to lacerating testimonies every day is exhausting, as it could not be otherwise, but it is also gratifying. «It is a very grateful job. It is difficult, but it also has a very positive side,” explains Castañeda.

Communicate the news

Sometimes the patient, after being informed that they have cancer, does not know how to tell their family. Other times, upon receiving the diagnosis, he is shocked, without enough lucidity to understand his pathology. Family members can also use the telephone, which they usually resort to if the patient is going into palliative care and they do not know how to break the news. The casuistry is very broad. «The other day I saw a woman who had had a mastectomy three years ago and now she had suffered a relapse, which is rare. She called very distraught because she had a small baby and she didn’t know how to handle the situation. We welcomed her, listened to her and took her to a professional,” says Herreras, with four years of experience at Infocáncer.

Usually, the people who make these first calls remain calm. “Many times they avoid saying to a family member ‘I’m afraid of dying’ so as not to worry them, but here they can do it.”

Infocáncer was created thirty years ago, but until five years ago it was staffed by volunteers. In 2016, we opted for professionalization and the activity grew exponentially. “We have gone from 5,000 calls per year to around 215,000, more than 17,000 per month,” says Bressanello.

It seems that men have a harder time opening up and confessing their sorrows. Not in vain, 65% of the queries come from women and the rest from men. Of the users who call, 67% are patients and 33% are family members.

Now there is much more information on the relationship between covid and cancer, but in March and April of last year there was a significant increase in consultations due to the consequences that SARS-CoV-2 infection entails for cancer patients. «It is also not necessary for a patient to always talk. It depends, there are communicative people and others who are more withdrawn. The important thing is to remove the affected person’s feeling of guilt for not being able to be positive and cheerful,” adds Bressanello.

Judging by the evaluation made by the aid seekers themselves, the service is close to perfection. On a scale of 0 to 9, users give a score of 8.8. A benefit for which more and more nutritional information is demanded.