Cancer is a disease that many people have had to deal with in one way or another. Most of us personally know at least one family that has been touched by cancer. Chances are that we have experienced cancer in our own families. Perhaps you are dealing with a diagnosis of cancer or have beaten cancer yourself.
I personally have lost a son, two sisters-in-law and two favorite uncles to cancer in the last five years.
Recently, a dear friend’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. Her cancer has not metastasized, so with surgery and probably chemo her chances of a full recovery are good.
A diagnosis of cancer is traumatic, not just to the person living with cancer, but to everyone with a connection to that person-family, friends, and even the family doctor.
The Person with Cancer
If you have been diagnosed with cancer, you almost certainly are going through a range of emotions from deep grief and hopelessness, to anger, to feelings of intense urgency and feelings of love. Memories, regrets, unfulfilled intentions and fears will surface. You may find yourself dwelling on the anticipated surgery and possible catastrophic outcomes. You may find yourself trying to avoid thinking about it.
It is important to acknowledge that emotional turmoil is quite normal under the extreme circumstances of trauma. One moment you may be planning what you will do after you recover; the next moment you may be planning your obituary.
You may want all your family members around you, and then suddenly want to be left alone. You may want to talk with your family about your death even if your chances of survival are good. You may want to talk with them about planning a family vacation for next year, even if your chances of survival are slim.
The essential thing to recognize is that all of this is a normal part of your body and mind trying to heal in the context of trauma.
Hope is built on acknowledging the worst case, not on denying it.
Family and Friends
If you are a close family member or friend of the one diagnosed, you too will be grieving, even if the prognosis is incredibly good. You may be consumed with an urgency to fix the problem, but then be overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness. You may want to withdraw or blame. All of this is a normal part of being traumatized by the news of the diagnosis.
Just try to be accessible and listen without judgment. It may be uncomfortable to hear your loved one talk about death, but that may be what they need to do.
Avoid exaggerating the gravity of the situation. Within a day of my daughter’s diagnosis and upcoming surgery, a relative approached her and said, “If you die, can I have your art?” (She beat the cancer, and that was 20 years ago.)
Avoid minimizing the situation with “Everything is going to be alright,” or “The surgery will be a piece of cake.”
Stay calm and let them talk about whatever they want to. Just be present as they go through the inevitable shock and emotional turmoil. If you don’t know what to say, just listen.
Try to be there for the practical stuff: telephone calls, organizing visits, transportation, pet minding, medical appointments, wills, etc. The last thing they need right after receiving a diagnosis of cancer is to be fretting about practical arrangements.
The Professional Community
We all hear stories of doctors, medical receptionists, and other professionals saying inappropriate things that further traumatize the patient. I don’t for a moment take it as inherent insensitivity or callousness among the professionals. Rather, I believe that it is more likely a reflection of the professionals’ fears of their own mortality.
My experience is that most of the professional community does display sensitivity in dealing with the very ill. However, in the chain of service providers a cancer patient must deal with, it only takes one insensitive remark to make a bad situation worse.
If you are a professional in that chain, acknowledging to yourself discomfort with your own mortality, will lead to more compassion with your cancer patients.
by Neill Neill