For anyone, being diagnosed with cancer is like entering another world — full of new terminology and overwhelming decisions. For people who are not native English speakers, the language of cancer can be especially confusing. That’s why Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) interpreters play a critical role for these patients and their care teams.
The relationship starts even before a new patient walks through the doors, says Charlotte Laforestrie, a Spanish and French interpreter. From helping with intake paperwork to accompanying families at post-op check-ins, interpreters are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at every MSK location, including those outside of New York City.
MSK’s seven in-house interpreters are fluent in Spanish, French, Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Russian, and Ukrainian. There are also MSK-contracted freelancers, plus outside agency, video, and telephone services available day and night to meet the high demand.
Being an interpreter means more than breaking down language barriers, says Laforestrie. It’s about understanding cultures. “A Dominican person is going to be very different from an Argentinean person, even though they are both Hispanic,” she says. “There’s a different vocabulary to know.”
Wai Lik “Power” Sun, a Mandarin and Cantonese interpreter, agrees that understanding cultural norms is crucial. For example, MSK interpreters know it’s important in many cultures to include a family member in the decision-making process. “We encourage patients to listen to the doctor but also to ask questions so they can be informed and make decisions for themselves,” he says.
At the end of the day, interpreters are there to make an overwhelming experience a little easier. “These patients arrive stressed,” Laforestrie says. “They don’t know the language or what to expect. When we arrive and introduce ourselves, I see them relax.”