Weathering Cancer with Empathy and Resilience

Contributed by: Chia Hui Erl

When cancer enters a household, it impacts everyone involved. Discover how to confront the health crisis with unity and strength.

A cancer diagnosis affects not only the patient but THE patient’s family, friends and community. The experience can be overwhelming as the cancer treatment often entails a complex array of lifestyle changes and emotional responses. These can be difficult to handle and manage.

Patients, as well as their loved ones, may experience uncertainty about what lies ahead. This, however, can be a life-changing experience that promises potential psychological growth for both patients and families when they come together and embrace the journey with empathy and resilience.

Understanding the potential changes in the ways patients relate to their diagnosis can be helpful in taking more constructive steps to grow and maintain healthy, mutually supportive relationships during this challenging journey.

Here are some significant changes that patients and their families may experience, and ways to weather through them together as a family:

EMBRACING AND ADAPTING TO CHANGES

Cancer often brings about changes in roles and responsibilities within a family and relationships. Patients may find themselves having to relinquish their usual roles, or family members may need to take up new roles. Added responsibilities may become overwhelming. This can lead to feelings of frustration and resentment. If you are a patient, you may also feel guilty or sad about being taken care of. It is important for you to acknowledge these changes and understand that they can affect everyone involved. As you focus on your health, you may find that your perspectives and priorities in life have shifted. It is important to communicate these changes to your loved ones. By expressing your needs and concerns, you can foster an environment of understanding and empathy.

CHANGING PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL NEEDS

Cancer and its treatment can have significant impact on physical needs such as patient’s appetite and energy level. Patients may find themselves no longer enjoy food they used to like and activities they love doing. These are some of the changes that come along with a cancer diagnosis that may have a significant impact on patient’s psychological wellbeing.

Patients may experience feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger or even hopelessness. Both patients and family members need to be sensitive to the changing emotional needs that come with it. Your loved ones may not realise what you need or how to help. It is thus important to talk openly and express clearly about your needs.

FOSTERING OPEN AND HONEST COMMUNICATION

Instead of taking on an avoidance stance (so as not to cause hurt or aggravate conflict) when confronted with the overwhelming challenges of cancer, it is pertinent to find a way to talk openly with your loved ones. Engaging in honest conversations about your feelings, fears and concerns can help alleviate emotional burdens and strengthen your relationships. Being more proactive in initiating these discussions can resolve issues before they become more difficult to tackle. Encourage your family and friends to share their thoughts and concerns as well. This helps to create a space for open dialogue and mutual support.

INCLUDING CHILDREN IN THE CONVERSATION

When a parent is diagnosed with cancer, the first reaction may be to keep the diagnosis from children or to delay telling them. Talking to children about cancer can be challenging as they may not have fully grasp the implications of such a condition. Even though it can be difficult, research shows that being open helps children cope and adapt better. It is therefore essential to communicate openly with children so that they feel included and understand the basics of what is happening. Tailor the conversation to your children’s age and prepare them on changes that they might experience — for instance, dealing with changes to your physical appearance. In the midst of uncertainty, this helps children feel more secure and assured.

REALIGNING LIFE’S DIRECTION

A cancer diagnosis changes hopes and dreams that patients and their families hold. Your plans for career development, retirement or even parenthood may change, potentially causing feelings of sadness, despair or even anger. It can be more constructive and helpful to re-evaluate priorities and work together to establish new short-term goals (e.g., finishing cancer treatment). Things that seemed important before the cancer diagnosis may give way to new priorities, such as spending more bonding time with family. Putting some goals on hold — rather than changing them completely — can help you pace yourself while still holding on to your aspirations.

PRESERVING AND STRENGTHENING FAMILY BONDS

Cancer treatment can reshape the landscape of family time and traditions. Activities may need to be quieter or carried out closer to home, but they can be just as meaningful. Use this time to nurture your connections by engaging in activities that bring joy and meaning to your relationships. Whether it is spending quality time together, sharing memories or simply expressing gratitude for their presence, these actions can strengthen the emotional bonds that sustain you.

Setting The Boundaries Of Care

Guiding overzealous helpers:

Setting clear boundaries is crucial when well-meaning friends or relatives are complicating your efforts, despite their best intentions. Kindly but firmly communicate what kind of support is beneficial. For instance, a patient might say, “Your support means a lot to us, but the most helpful thing right now is space or help with specific tasks.” Communicate both your needs and those of your family’s clearly to prevent any misunderstanding.

Addressing withdrawal:

Some friends or family members may seem distant after a cancer diagnosis, not knowing what to say or how to act. While distressing, it is important to understand that their behaviour may stem from personal fears or past painful experiences, rather than their feelings toward you. While some may retreat, others will offer invaluable emotional and practical support throughout your illness.

Responding to platitudes:

Hearing “It’ll be okay” can sometimes dismiss the complex emotions that you as patient and your family are facing. Encourage open dialogue by letting your relatives know that you value their presence and understanding, and not just reassurance. And it is perfectly okay to seek a listening ear for concerns and fears.

Encouraging communication:

A lack of communication often leads to isolation, frustration and misunderstandings. Good communication is key, and important in relationships between cancer patients and those who care about them. It opens the doorway for better understanding and empathy that is essential to help patients and their families weather through a cancer experience.

“Engaging in honest conversations about your feelings, fears and concerns can help alleviate emotional burdens and strengthen your relationships.”
Ms Chia Hui Erl,
Senior Counsellor, Allied Health, Parkway Cancer Centre

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POSTED IN Psychological Health
PUBLISHED 01 APRIL 2024