Facing Cancer Together: A Roadmap for Families, Part One

Part one in a series

Cancer is one of the more frightening words to attach to ourselves or someone we love. The best possible course of action upon hearing this diagnosis is to face it head on, together, armed with all facts possible. “Knowledge is power,” one of my favorite doctors told me. But while the patient fights for their life on the medical front, those close to the patient, including a spouse, siblings, parents and friends, have the challenge of supporting their loved one through this difficult and life-threatening disease.

For those of you with a loved one facing cancer right now, following are some ideas to provide support along the way. Do you have a great piece of caretaker advice to share? Please leave a comment at the end of the post. We’d love to hear from you.

Supporting Your Cancer Survivor 

Address the Issue: The impact of a cancer diagnosis is impossible to ignore. Best to face all issues head-on, in the open, with everyone involved. “Most people can handle the news that they have cancer, but each person needs time to adjust and figure out what the diagnosis means to them,” states a Cancer.Org article for families facing cancer. “If you are a family member trying to decide if you should tell a loved one they have cancer, consider this: you may think you are sparing them bad news, but they probably will sense something is wrong, especially if they start having a lot of tests done and/or don’t feel well. The person with cancer may resent it when they find out family members kept the diagnosis a secret. Although you may think you are protecting them, your loved one might see this as dishonest.”

Validate feelings: Your loved one will likely experience an overwhelming jumble of emotions: fear, anxiety, sadness, perhaps even indifference. Let them know they can share with you what’s on their mind, whatever that may be. Or not. “Keep in mind that not everyone with cancer wants to talk about their feelings,” continues the Cancer.Org article. “They may have other ways to express their emotions, and some people just prefer to keep their feelings private. People with cancer might just want you to help them maintain their normal routine as much as possible. Just be yourself and continue to do things with them as you would if they didn’t have cancer.”

Help the patient continue to work or attend school: Allow them to do as much as they desire, even if it’s just a little every day. Answering emails or checking in at the office, or keeping up with a class provides a distraction to medication timetables and hospital visits. Same goes for home-schooling or on-line education, as long as the workload is manageable and not an additional stress. Follow your patient’s lead on this one.

Heal with Humor: There is much truth to the saying, “laughter is the best medicine.” Laughter really is healing. Research has shown that laughter can boost your immune system, decrease blood pressure and increase pain tolerance. Cancer Treatment Centers of America even offers laughter therapy. From their website: “Over the years, researchers have conducted studies to explore the impact of laughter on health. After evaluating participants before and after a humorous event (i.e., a comedy video), studies have revealed that episodes of laughter helped to reduce pain, decrease stress-related hormones and boost the immune system in participants.”

Not to mention humor provides moments of joy during a serious and scary time in life for all involved in the patient’s care. Watch a funny movie, pick up a light book, even read aloud to your loved one, surf the web for humorous stories and outtakes. Schedule a visit with a lighthearted friend. Try to find something to enjoy every day that will bring a smile to your face or even incite a belly laugh.

For Kids in the Family 

Be honest without scaring them: Kids don’t need to know every detail, but they deserve the truth, as they will likely recognize that something serious is going on. Kids are much more resilient than adults sometimes give them credit for. Being open allows children to recognize and understand their own feelings. A hug or heartfelt get well card from a child will lift the patient’s spirits tremendously.

Maintain Normalcy: A cancer diagnosis immediately sets a new normal for all involved. If possible, maintain typical daily schedules or establish new routines. Don’t allow school attendance to lapse or forsake extracurricular activities. Although this might require advanced planning and assistance from others, it will be to everyone’s benefit. There is comfort in order and familiarity.

Coming soon: Part Two, For You, The Caregiver

Suggested Resources

National Cancer Institute: When Someone You Love is being Treated for Cancer

Cancer.Org: For Spouses, Families and Friends