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Lifeline: Patient-to-Patient Telephone Support Makes the Difference

Network - Summer 2010

By Mary Brolley

“May I make a quick call?” Elizabeth Sarabia Cerda asked the distressed patient.

In a preparatory meeting before surgery to insert his chemotherapy port, the middle-aged man had become agitated, then had burst into tears and said, “I’m going to die anyway. Why should I do this?”

Sarabia Cerda, a physician assistant in MD Anderson’s Department of Surgery, remembered the Anderson Network Patient and Caregiver Telephone Support Line, which connects patients with survivors who share their diagnosis, and, if possible, treatment history.

She called Sam Short, senior administrative assistant for the Anderson Network, a patient and caregiver support organization. Short quickly searched the database of nearly 1,200 telephone support volunteers to find one with a similar diagnosis and treatment plan.

Within 15 minutes, Sarabia Cerda recalls, the patient’s cell phone rang. On the other side of the line was a Tennessee man who had survived the same diagnosis, metastasis and surgery.

The men spoke for several minutes, then the reassured patient decided to go ahead with surgery. More than a year later, he is doing well.

“He was a tough guy, but he was frightened and desperate. We (health care professionals) are sympathetic, but we haven’t walked in patients’ shoes,” Sarabia Cerda says. “It was great to be able to connect him with someone who understood exactly what he was feeling.”

After her memorable encounter with the support line, Sarabia Cerda left Short a voice mail to thank her. Short has saved the message for nearly 18 months.

“She said my call made a huge difference to the patient. In fact, she said I was ‘Making Cancer History®,’” Short says. “I loved it.”

Bridging the gap to share expertise

The support line is among Anderson Network’s most successful programs. Since 1986, it has linked more than 20,000 patients nationwide. Callers and volunteers are welcome, no matter where they received or are receiving treatment.

Its aim — to connect those at different stages of the cancer journey so they can tap into each others’ experiences — bridges the gap between patients who might not otherwise meet. It’s also available to caregivers who’d like to speak with another caregiver of a patient similar to their own loved one. There is also a separate database of and for pediatric caregivers.

Telephone volunteers are screened and trained by Anderson Network staff. Additional training is also available online. Volunteers are encouraged to be a voice of hope and support, but not to give medical advice or promote MD Anderson.

While most callers are new to the cancer experience, some are years beyond treatment, says Laura Hearn, program coordinator of the support line. As cancer treatments evolve, volunteers with certain diagnoses and treatment histories are in special demand, she says, as are bilingual and young adult survivors.

To become a telephone support volunteer or to be connected with another caregiver or survivor, call 800-345-6324 or 713-792-2553, or visit the Anderson Network links in the Resources tab.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center