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Health literacy: How to unlock its power during a cancer journey

Advocating for yourself is key when faced with a cancer diagnosis. We break down the how-to of health literacy.

March 19, 2024

Health literacy is often overlooked, but it’s important to our overall well-being, especially when it comes to cancer.

The ability to understand, navigate and effectively talk about health-related information is key to making informed decisions and taking a proactive approach toward cancer prevention, early detection and management. Health literacy has a profound impact on cancer, so let’s explore why it matters, the challenges we face and how we can improve our health literacy to help reduce the burden of this disease.

Have cancer-related questions? Connect with a specially trained oncology nurse 24/7 at (615) 514-2401.

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is how well we gather and process the basic health information needed to make informed decisions and take appropriate actions for our health. Health literacy isn’t simply reading health-related information. To be health literate, one needs to have a broader understanding of health concepts and be able to use that information to maintain and improve their health or the health of loved ones.

Health literacy and cancer prevention

Health literacy plays a critical role in cancer prevention because it empowers us with the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions and take proactive steps in our health journeys. Understanding the risk factors associated with cancer, such as smoking, poor diet, lack of physical activity and exposure to environmental toxins, arms us with the information we need to make healthier lifestyle choices. When we can recognize early warning signs of cancer, like changes in the skin, unexplained weight loss, persistent pain or unusual bleeding, we can seek timely medical attention and increase the chances of early detection and successful treatment.

Key challenges of limited health literacy

Effective health literacy and cancer awareness face several challenges. Complex medical jargon can be overwhelming for people without a medical background. Even more, the overwhelming amount of health content available to us on the internet can lead to information overload, making it challenging to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources. Cultural beliefs, language barriers and socioeconomic factors can also hinder health literacy and access to cancer information, further driving health disparities.

How can patients advocate for themselves?

As a patient, what can you do if you feel like you’re not receiving the information you need in the way that works best for you? It’s important to advocate for yourself, but knowing how can be difficult. Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Express your concerns — Speak up and communicate your concerns to your healthcare provider. Let them know if you're having trouble understanding the information or if you need it presented differently. Your doctor may be able to change their communication style or offer additional resources to support your needs.
  2. Request more time — If you feel rushed during appointments or overwhelmed by the amount of information shared, ask for more time. Request a follow-up appointment or additional sessions to discuss your condition, explore treatment options, and answer any additional questions you may have. Adequate time allows for a thorough understanding of your healthcare journey.
  3. Ask for support — Reach out to friends, family or patient advocacy groups who can offer guidance and support. They can help you comb through the information, ask questions on your behalf and provide emotional support during your healthcare journey.
  4. Contact your patient navigator for support — If you feel overwhelmed or unable to navigate the healthcare system effectively, consider reaching out to your Sarah Cannon patient navigator. These professionals are trained to support and guide patients in understanding their medical information, communicating with healthcare providers and making informed decisions.

At Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at TriStar Health, people who live with cancer — those who work to prevent it, fight it and survive it — are at the heart of every decision we make. We understand that each patient is unique and requires individualized care. By providing clear and accessible health information, we’re better able to empower all patients to make informed decisions about their cancer treatment.

March 19, 2024

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