Stan Goldberg
Cancer Overview

What to Do when A Loved One Says, "I Have Cancer"

Anyone who has been given a cancer diagnosis makes an immediate recalibration of every previously held ambition. Friends and loved ones often don’t understand how priorities held for a lifetime can change overnight when someone learns that he or she has cancer. Reactions to a cancer diagnosis, regardless of the prognosis, will vary according to personality, but each person will experience an onslaught of fear, worry and uncertainty.

A recent report from the National Cancer Institute estimated 14 million people in the U.S. have had a cancer diagnosis, but that number is expected to grow to 19 million by 2024. More and more people must struggle with how to face the new reality of a life-threatening disease. And over on the sidelines, friends and loved ones struggle with how best to support them.

Today, cancer treatment is mostly given in outpatient treatment centers, not in hospitals, according to the American Cancer Society. This means someone is needed to be part of the day-to-day care of the person with cancer, and that sicker people are being cared for at home. However, the presence alone of caregivers is just part of the support needed by cancer patients — the attitudes of the caregivers may be the most important variable.

Often, friends and family members struggle with what to say and do, and the person with cancer may be uncomfortable asking for or accepting help. The process of transitioning from independence to dependence will require much sensitivity and adaptation from all involved.

Consider these five approaches to supporting your loved one with cancer:

  1. Actions are better than words. Never miss the opportunity to express your compassion through words, but when possible, express compassion through actions. If your loved one enjoys watching birds outside her window, install a bird feeder to attract them. Drive her on any errands, and offer to let her stay in the car if she shows signs of fatigue.
  2. Stay flexible on any engagements. Welcome any invitations for outings, but if your loved one cancels an event, offer to stay with him despite his insistence that you go by yourself. Acknowledge the legitimacy of your loved one’s reasons for canceling.
  3. Keep in mind that pain is subjective. Think about the experience of pain as a runaway car going downhill without brakes. You, the driver, are consumed with fright as the car continues to pick up speed. The same thing happens with pain. A mistake some people make is using distractions in place of pain medication. Use a hospital-based 0-10 pain management continuum and accept the number your loved one provides.
  4. Wait for your loved one to initiate difficult discussions. Forcing a loved one or friend to “face reality,” whether it involves the acceptance of a chronic illness or her impending death, rarely is fruitful. Instead, it can create additional anxiety. Don’t force difficult discussions. Wait until your loved one is ready.
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