Caring for Someone with Cancer
Principal Counsellor Tan Hui Ping from Parkway Cancer Centre shares some suggestions on how to care for a loved one or friend who has been diagnosed with cancer.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis can have a huge emotional impact on your loved one or friend, as it is likely to force them to confront their mortality. Life can change overnight as they struggle with multiple changes and uncertainties as well as a spectrum of emotions - ranging from anxiety, fear, helplessness, to hopelessness, guilt and anger. Cancer patients can feel lost amid the uncertainty of their situation or frustrated with what's happening. Or, they may come to an acceptance of their condition.
Your loved one can feel some or even all of these emotions at the same time, or experience a mixture of emotions with no logical sequence and with varying intensities. That is why many cancer patients describe their emotional journey literally just like a "roller coaster" as they go through good and bad days, and learn to live with the uncertainty of cancer.
So how can you care for someone with cancer? For a spouse, child, parent, relative or close friend, caring for your loved one or a friend with cancer can involve many challenges and dilemmas beyond the practical aspects of caring. For example, while you want to help, you may feel unsure about how to do it. Perhaps you're worried about saying the wrong thing and making your loved one or friend feel even worse. Or you don't know whether to stay by their side, as you're uncertain if they preferred someone to be around or to be left alone.
With all these dilemmas, some family members and friends would tend to stay away from the patients. As a result, the latter's social circle shrinks. Yet, this is in fact the very point that they need the most support. Here are some ways you can care for your loved one or friend going through cancer:
Be present and listen compassionately
By simply being present is a form of support for your loved one or friend going through this difficult journey.
Listen compassionately to them as they share their fears, frustrations, helplessness, uncertainties and other thoughts and emotions. Listen to what they said and also what is being left unsaid. At times, use appropriate non-verbal gestures such as nodding your head, making eye contact, holding his hand or giving him a hug to show that you're listening.
Allow your loved one or friend to share at their own pace and do not feel pressured to say anything. Many times, just "holding the space" and sit in silence with them can be very comforting.
Respect and support decisions
Your loved one or friend needs to make many difficult and important decisions throughout the journey with cancer, such as to whom and how to break the news of diagnosis, and when and what treatment options to consider. You might be tempted to provide well-intended advice or offer your opinions, but try to suspend the urge to do so, unless your views are solicited. Many patients are already struggling with confusion, hence, what they sometimes really need is not more advice, but encouragement and support for their decisions.
Offer specific and practical assistance
While you may not be able to provide medical or professional help, you can offer practical help that will help alleviate your loved one's worries about his daily routine. For example, you can help him make medical appointments, run errands, drive him or his family members around, babysit his children, shop for groceries or give him a massage. And if he needs financial support, you can rally the family members or community to raise funds.
Stay involved and connected
Even when you're occupied with your own commitment, continue to keep your loved one or friend in mind.
Check in with him periodically over the long haul, to give him the much-needed assurance that you are still thinking of him. Send him an email, a message or a card to remind him that he's always in your thoughts. And if you can, read up and find out more about the illness, so that you can better understand what he's going through.
Maintain regular activities
Sometimes, your loved one or friend would want to talk about other things apart from their illness and live life as normal.
So, continue to engage in activities which you both used to do together and make modifications where necessary. Inject humour in your conversations and laugh together with him.
What to say (and not to say)
- Be present and listen compassionately. Say things like, "If you feel like talking, I'm here to listen" or "I'm here for you". But say this only if you meant it, and don't forget to follow through!
- Respect and support their decisions on areas related to their illness or treatment.
- Offer specific and practical assistance to alleviate their worries and concerns on day-to-day matters.
- Use positive and hopeful words, but don't give false hope.
- Talk about non-cancer related topics to give your loved one a break from talking and thinking about the disease all the time.
- Blame your loved one or yourself for his illness.
- Downplay his illness or discount his feelings or tell him what he should or shouldn't think, feel or do.
- Burden him with stories of people who have had life-threatening illness and what they do to manage their disease.
- Distract him from meaningful conversations about life and death.
- Say things like, "Don't worry, you'll be fine" or "How long more do you have?"
- Talk about your own problems. Focus on your loved one or friend. It's about him, not you.
Care for yourself first
If you're a caregiver for your loved one with cancer, do remember that you, too, can be affected physically, mentally and emotionally by your loved one's condition.
Cancer affects not just the patient, but also the entire family and social support network. So, before you can support and care for your loved one or friend, you have to care for yourself first!
If you are facing a crisis yourself or struggling with problems at work or in your family, your ability to care or even to offer support will be affected.
Remember, if you don't take care of yourself, you won't be able to care for others. Self-care is not a selfish act, but a responsible behavior.
Caring for your loved one with cancer can be physically tiring, mentally challenging and emotionally draining. But you don't have to face it alone. Seek professional help if needed or join a caregiver support group.
The article above is meant to provide general information and does not replace a doctor's consultation.
Please see your doctor for professional advice.