Physicians, especially cancer specialists, have learned that when the word "cancer" appears in a diagnosis, a patient stops hearing, becomes unable at that moment to absorb any further information. Many of the cancer services--hotlines, support groups, books, for example--are designed to help communicate with patients and their families who may be unable to accept the reality of the situation.

One, newly updated by the National Cancer Institute, is "Questions and Answers About Pain Control: A Guide for Persons With Cancer and Their Families." It is being distributed free by the American Cancer Society.

The new pain guide is based on a booklet--Dealing With Pain, authored in part by Marion Morra, who also wrote Choices, one of the most informative consumer books on cancer treatment on the shelves and currently being updated.

The Pain Q&A is clear, informative and should be useful to anybody who hurts, not just cancer patients. It helps the individual distinguish between types of pain and, importantly, makes the point that cancer need not be associated with pain. It can be read in a few minutes and used subsequently as a reference.

Best of all it is open-minded about approaches to intractable pain that only a few years ago were considered something just this side of quackery. Such things as relaxation techniques, imaging, biofeedback, acupuncture, skin stimulation and pain "distractions." The booklet even suggests the usefulness of a small amount of alcohol--but warns that it might interact with drugs so should never be taken without knowledge of the attending health-care professional.

Other areas covered:

* Nonprescription drugs, narcotics and surgery.

* Reading list and practitioner resources.

* Hospices and family-and-patient support organizations.

The booklet is a clear signal that the medical establishment is thinking about the patient as well as the illness.

For a free copy write: American Cancer Society, D.C. Division, Inc., Suite 315, 1825 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington D.C. 20009 or American Cancer Society, National Office, 777 Third Ave., New York 10017.

How are you seeing these days? Have to squint to read the paper? Can you find a number in the phone book? And once you find it, can you read it?

The National Society to Prevent Blindness has devised a quick and easy kit for an adult home eye test. (The eye people already have one for preschoolers and have distributed some 9 million since it was devised in 1972.)

The new test is designed to detect symptoms of some major vision problems such as glaucoma, cataracts, or macular degeneration, an eye disorder usually associated with aging--in fact, the leading cause of blindness for those over 75. It is a disorder of blood vessels supplying the part of the retina that provides sharp central vision.

The tests, for distance vision, near vision and for detecting macular degeneration, are quick, easy, painless and may be given by a friend or family member, or self-administered. Instructions are enclosed in the kit.

The best news is that even if you don't pass any of the tests, it probably means nothing more than you need glasses or a new prescription. But the test could get you in for an eye examination.

To take this sample near-vision test, hold the paper about 14 inches from your eyes, use both eyes and wear your reading glasses. If you use bifocals use the bottom part. Half of all blindess can be prevented. Everyone over 35 should have an eye examination every two years.

The society's instructions suggest that even if you pass their tests, you should see an ophthalmologist as soon as possible if you have certain symptoms: blurry or double vision, spots, trouble adjusting to dark, see halos around lights, have difficulty focusing on near objects, see vertical lines as wavy, have dry eyes, watery eyes or see flashes of light or showers of black spots. In most cases, sight can be saved if treatment is undertaken early enough.

To obtain the kit, send $1 to National Society to Prevent Blindness, 79 Madison Ave., New York 10016. Information on the kit for preschoolers is also available.

Books to Note:

* Over the Counter Pills That Don't Work by a team of writers and scientists ($7, Public Citizen Health Research Group)--Discusses the top-selling 467 drugs for which Americans pay $500 million a year. Of these, says the book, about one-third contain ingredients that the Food & Drug Administration says "lack evidence of safety and effectiveness," and another third have ingredients the HRG believes are not proven to be safe or effective. To obtain the book, not available in bookstores, send $7 (includes postage) to HRG, Dept 2, 2000 P St. NW, Washington D.C. 20036.

* QR: The Quieting Reflex by Charles F. Stroebel, M.D. ($2.95, Berkley). Now in paperback, the QR book is a classic in stress management, especially for those of us who are attached to our A-type minds but would like to keep our bodies in the healthier B-range. Stroebel's 6-second anti-stress technique can kick in by itself if you practice it faithfully for a few months. It can work on almost anything from heartburn to migraine.