When someone else has cancer

Physical health, emotional health

Whether it’s you, or someone you know, a cancer diagnosis can trigger a whole range of emotions: fear, sadness, anger, anxiety, uncertainty – even relief if there’d been uncertainty for some time. For every patient, it’s important to care about emotional health. Although there’s no evidence that a positive attitude in itself has any role to play in how well someone will respond to treatment, taking steps to reduce stress can make it all feel easier to cope with and help deal with the most challenging times.

So many questions

Most people will have lots of questions when they’re diagnosed with cancer and will need support from family and friends as well as the professional help they’ll receive.

  • There may be worries about the future, about what the treatment will involve
  • There may be concerns about being independent afterwards and what side-effects there could be from a treatment
  • There may be anxieties about a job, relationships, family or pets
  • There may be times when someone suffering from cancer simply misses the way life was before the diagnosis

There’s no set, predictable way that people respond to cancer. The most difficult time for many patients is just after the end of chemotherapy, because treatment gives structure and routine. When that’s gone it’s common for patients to feel very low. Some find it hard to move on from cancer – and that can be particularly difficult if others around them don’t understand that. And some know it’s possible their cancer will return, which an be very hard to live with.

…so ask some more!

These days, the emotional difficulties associated with cancer are well recognised. Most GPs and cancer centres offer support for these, as well as practical medical advice. In patient support groups, cancer patients can talk to others who are going through similar experiences, which can be very helpful. Lots of people would probably like someone they know to go along to these sessions with them in the beginning, however remember that everyone is different so don’t be offended if they don’t want you to.

There’s also the possibility of getting professional psychological help. A doctor can advise if it would be good to see a psychologist or counsellor. A doctor may also decide there could be benefits to taking antidepressants for a while, but this will depend on general health and other medication. A large amount of support is available in online communities such as Macmillan’s community.macmillan.org.uk

But what do I say?

Many people can find it hard to open up to their loved ones about their cancer worries. But it’s important: talking can help, and may bring you closer together during a tough time. Here are some ideas:

  • If it’s your partner — Try to be very honest and open. Encourage them to be the same: it will probably help them to help you, if you can explain how you’re feeling too. They may just need a hug, or want to talk about normal things instead of cancer for a while.
  • If it’s your grown-up children — You may want to protect them, but they’ll probably appreciate it if you let them make their own decisions, in their own time. Just be there for them; sometimes the mundane things – like helping to get shopping, or picking up children – can be the most useful. Ask them if it’s all right to ask questions, and, if they’re happy with the idea, to go with them to appointments.
  • If it’s young children or grandchildren — Be clear, be gentle, and always be honest if you can. Tell them that you understand they’re not very well, and that the doctors are helping. If you’re struggling to talk about cancer to your children, speak to your GP who will probably have local contacts who can help you as a family.
  • If it’s your colleagues — Depending on your relationship with them, you may not need to say too much. They may not want to share any information at all, but they may appreciate offers of help with work to accommodate treatment.
  • If it’s someone you’ve just met — It may be surprising, but sometimes people may not mention the fact they have, or have had, cancer at all. If they want to share information and you feel uncomfortable about it – don’t be afraid to say so, politely. At the same time, don’t feel pressurised to make a sympathetic or knowledgeable comment with a stranger. It can be refreshing, and more helpful, if you admit you don’t know much about the disease.

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