How to cope with a cancer diagnosis
How to Cope with Cancer As a Family
Receiving a cancer diagnosis is not only tough on the patient, but the family, as well. Although the person with cancer likely doesn’t want the family members to bear any burdens because of their illness or experience unwanted changes, they likely will. As the ill family member endures treatment and the side effects of cancer, everyone’s routines, activities, and normal ways of life may be affected. But by managing your emotions after learning the news, adjusting to the changes, and accepting help in positive and useful ways, you can get through this as a family.
Taking in the News
Expect for everyone to feel a range of emotions.Learning that someone in the family has a serious medical condition can elicit many different feelings. Some may feel scared and sad, while others could feel anger and denial. Know that there aren’t any right or wrong feelings. Allow yourself to feel the feelings you have. For example, if you feel sad, cry. If you feel angry, allow yourself a healthy expression of anger. Suppressing feelings will only make the emotional tension worse as time goes on.
Talk about what you’re feeling with those who support you.Hearing the news of a cancer diagnosis is overwhelming and frightening. Although everyone handles it in different ways, holding it in typically makes things worse. Talk to your family about how you feel about the news, whether you are the person with cancer or it is someone else in the family.
- Not only will getting your feelings out in the open likely make you feel better, but you can find out how everyone else is feeling, which gets the family on the same page.
- Consider the personalities of everyone in your family to find out how to get them to open up. Some work better in one-on-one settings, while others are more responsive in group settings.
- You might start by simply saying, “Well, we had some big news this week. How are you feeling about it?”
Expect all types of reactions from children and teens.When you do talk to your children about cancer, you can expect a variety of reactions. Encourage them to ask questions. And try to address their fears. Understand that some kids may act out as a way of demonstrating their sadness or confusion, while others might act "numb" or like they don't care at all. Generally, such behavior will stop after the child comes to grips with the news.
- However, some kids may have trouble coping with the fact that a family member is sick.Get professional help from a counselor or therapist if your child is having trouble coping.
Take the family to the doctor with you.Your family likely has lots of questions about your diagnosis. Getting the answers straight from the doctor can give them the support they need. Having them involved in your diagnosis and treatment plan may help them feel more optimistic about the future and can bring you closer together.
Process news of terminal cancer.If the diagnosis is terminal or end-stage cancer, the process of coping will also be a process of saying goodbye. Both adults and children will have varying ways of coping with the impending death of an ill family member. Grief specialists identify several stages that families go through during this time. Here's what you can expect.
- Crisis: This period may be marked by anxiety, guilt, or anger. Meeting with a therapist or support group is practical during this time to process the emotions surrounding the news.
- Unity: Everyone comes together to define their roles and focus on the needs of the ill family member. You might decide on medical services or make legal and burial arrangements.
- Upheaval: Unity fades if the dying process goes on for an extended period. Everyone's lifestyle endures major shifts. Negative emotions may reemerge. Family relationships may become strained.
- Resolution: Family members begin to reflect on memories with the person and their place in the family. Unresolved issues resurface and may need to be addressed. If seized appropriately and facilitated by a grief counselor, families can use this time to heal old wounds and make peace with the past.
- Renewal: After the person dies, the final stage of grief begins with a memorial and celebration of life. Family members may feel both sadness and relief that their loved one is no longer suffering.
Adjusting to Changes
Decide on a course of treatment together.Sometimes loved ones disagree on cancer treatment options. Whether you are two parents with conflicting goals for a child's treatment, or several siblings at odds over a parent's treatment, discord will only make the process harder.If possible, it's always best to consider the desires of the ill person to some extent.
- Present the options like "Mom, you can go through chemotherapy or you can sign up for a clinical trial with this new drug. What do you want to do?" Giving the person a voice can help them feel empowered, and take the burden of choosing from your own shoulders.
- However you choose, everyone needs to be on board to participate in treatment so that there is some degree of harmony in the decision. Changing diets for the whole family or moving across the country to get better access to specialized treatment requires everyone's participation.
- Have a family session with a mental health provider who has experience with end-of-life care to help facilitate a discussion with your loved ones.
Expect role changes.Depending on who in the family has been diagnosed with cancer, you will likely witness role reversals within the family unit. The primary caretaker of the family may now become the person who needs the most help. The children in the family may also need to increase their workload when it comes to household responsibilities. Having a family member with cancer is an adjustment, but it is doable.
- The relationship between the spouses may also change. Intimacy may become a problem, and marriages can become strained. Consider attending a therapy session to speak with a counselor if you are having troubles in your relationship after learning of a cancer diagnosis.
Stay positive.Not focusing on the fear and enormity of the situation may be difficult, but it is in everyone’s best interest to stay positive. Chances are, the person with cancer is already worried and frightened about what lies ahead, and concentrating on the “doom and gloom” aspect of the sickness isn’t helping. Putting on a brave face can inspire others in your family to do the same, and can make living with the situation much more bearable.
- When the person is having a “good” day, plan family outings or a game night. Try to maintain as much normality and usual family time as you can.
Monitor everyone’s feelings.Feeling sadness is normal after the initial diagnosis, but keep an eye on your family members for signs of depression during this difficult time. The person with cancer isn’t the only one who can suffer from depression; those around them can, as well. Depression is a serious matter that could have long-lasting or even tragic consequences, if it isn’t addressed.
- Signs of depression include an overwhelming feeling of sadness that lasts for weeks and doesn’t seem to get any better, causes problems with day-to-day activities, and has the person feeling hopeless or worthless.
Keep your lives as normal as possible.Sometimes, the best thing to do after a cancer diagnosis is to keep things as routine as possible. Continue going to work and exercising, if you are able. Allow your children to participate in the same activities as they have before. Adjusting to cancer is already difficult, and completely changing the normal way of life may be too much to handle.
- Maintaining a sense of normalcy can help everyone hold it together during this confusing and upsetting time. Having a set routine provides structure which can be helpful when the unpredictable can happen with your loved one’s sickness.
Take care of each other.Providing care for someone else is often very taxing. The most important thing that caregivers can do is to take care of themselves. In the case of families, it’s important to look out for and care for each other. Ensure you are getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and engaging in activities you enjoy. Feeling good yourself can help improve your mental health and allow you to better care for others.
- Make an effort to check in with family members regularly and ask what they need to feel supported. This includes the person who is ill.
- Watch for signs of isolation in family members. Sometimes when families get bad news, people will start to stay away from the person who is ill. Sometimes children or teens will do this as a way to “practice” not having the ill person around anymore.
- Isolation from the rest of the family can be stressful not only for the person who is staying away, but also for the person who is ill and does not understand why the isolated person won’t spend time with them. Address the reasons for isolation early before it becomes a problem.
Join a support group.Those with cancer and those who are supporting them can go to support groups to talk to others about what they are experiencing. Although you want to cope with the diagnosis as a family, sometimes, you just can’t talk to your family about everything. Patients may not want their families to hear all of their concerns, and the families may not want the patients to hear their fears. Support groups are safe places in which all matters can be discussed without fear.
- Ask your doctor about support groups in your area, or contact your local hospital for information. Online support groups are also available if you can’t leave the home, or if you can’t find any in your area.
Allow others to help with the chores.When your friends offer to cut the grass for you or carpool the children around, let them. Accepting help may hurt your pride initially, but you’ll likely find that it’s extremely helpful in the long run. Also, don’t feel like you are putting your family and friends out by asking for help—they are probably more than happy to contribute to your family.
- If you need help but don’t have anyone who is offering, look online for handyman services or someone who will provide assistance in whatever you need help with. Sometimes, spending a little money is worth the help.
Ask for professional mental help with children.Cancer is likely new territory for you and your family, especially your children. They may take this news harder than anyone, and you might not feel like you know what to do for them. Taking your child to a therapist may be what they need to really talk about how they feel, and learn how to adjust to this major change.
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