Back to main page

Back to Practical Caregiving Columns


Practical Caregiving

Cancer: Remaining Positive Amidst Fearing and Loathing

By Jean Donahue

My brother-in-law had cancer several years ago. When he was diagnosed with leukemia, the doctor explained the different emotions he would experience. It helped my sister and the rest of our family to understand why he acted the way he did. We didn't get upset when he yelled at someone because they took the parking spot he wanted. We didn't get upset when he was depressed. We understood that those were emotions nearly everyone experiences when they are diagnosed with cancer.

When anyone hears the diagnosis of cancer, all they feel are shock and fear. It is an ice cold feeling that won't go away. They think about it when they wake up, when they go to sleep, they read about it in the newspaper or see it on TV. It's with them all the time: Cancer. What a horrible disease, they constantly tell themselves - and they have it.

That's a normal reaction. There may be a time at first when they feel numb and/or confused, but after that they fear for their life. What will the future hold? What will happen ultimately? How can they face it all?

As caregivers - sons, daughters or spouses -- we need to be aware of the patient's different reactions when they hear the diagnosis of cancer. While they are common reactions, if we, as a caregiver, don't understand that they are normal, we might react very badly. After all, we have our own feelings to deal with as well as the feelings of our loved one.

The first reaction for a cancer victim after being diagnosed is usually shock. Even when they suspected they had cancer, no one is adequately prepared to receive the diagnosis. Part of their reaction is disbelief, especially if they feel healthy. A second medical opinion is always advisable for such a serious disease, but if that one is the same they have to face cancer. The victim is often nervous and upset with their family and others when the situation wouldn't normally bother them at all.

They may also grow fearful and anxious. They may be afraid of the disease, its treatment, and/or the pain and suffering that goes with disease and the cure. They want to wake up from their horrible nightmare, but they can't.

At some point, guilt sweeps over them. Could I have done something to find the cancer earlier? Could there be something in my home or office that could have caused it? What about my family and friends? Are they exposed to something that will give them cancer? Will my family get cancer because I have it?

Not all these thoughts and questions are rational, of course, but they leave the patient and their family saddened and awash with feelings of hopelessness. Anger then seeps in, again not always rationally. Why should I be the one with cancer? Other people are going about their lives and they don't even appreciate what they have! Actually, your loved one probably didn't appreciate it either - until now. Your loved one may get upset with family, friends or even strangers.

What else should you, as a caregiver, understand?

When your loved one is diagnosed with cancer, they need to understand and face their feelings. You can help, but it really up to them. Have them make a list of questions to ask the doctor. They should read about their particular type of cancer to better understand it. Ask the doctor to explain anything they donít understand, especially the terminology they now need to understand.

Find out what is needed for to build and maintain their health - what to eat, how much sleep, what medicines and vitamins will help, anything they should know. They should do whatever is necessary to improve their physical and mental health.

If your loved one has extreme depression, cries all the time, has trouble sleeping, thinks about suicide, has feelings of panic or intense anxiety, they should talk to their doctor or psychiatrist.

Personal beliefs are important in fighting cancer. Your loved one needs the support or faith or spirituality throughout. Those beliefs will help them. They need to work through their feelings and beliefs, and faith can influence how your loved one deals with their cancer and its treatment.

Your loved one also should focus on living with cancer, not dying. Just because they have cancer does not mean that they should stop making plans for the future. Those plans can always be changed. The key is to not focus on negativity.

One other important point: your loved one should accept the help they need or are offered. Overcoming or fighting disease is a team effort, as any caregiver knows so well. This really is to help them, not to make them dependant on others. They are still an important person to their family and friends, and they need to remember that while receiving care.

Finally, there will come a time when your loved one needs to tell their friends, extended family and associates that they have cancer. They shouldn't try to tell people before they are ready. They should feel comfortable about it when telling others. And they should express their diagnosis and outlook in as positive terms as possible.