A Family Affair: Managing the Impact of Cancer on Family

A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming for family and others in your life. It may be necessary to actively work to promote supportive relationships at this difficult time. The challenges facing couples may strengthen the relationship, create more problems or make existing issues worse.

Changing roles

A person who has always been in charge may have trouble accepting a dependent role. This was certainly true for me. As an RN and prior caregiver, I had to rely on my husband during my treatment. I had to rely on my husband when blood cancer made me exhausted. His role changed to one of preparing meals, shopping, driving and accompanying me to weekly chemotherapy and physician visits. This was already a difficult time as his job had been eliminated. Maybe things do happen for a reason. While we were not happy he was laid off and unemployed, this time off allowed him the ability to care for me.

Finding ways to communicate

It is important to keep the lines of communication open. Talking about cancer can be challenging as it involves intense emotions. Consider sharing your experience and talking openly and honestly about your thoughts and feelings. Try to practice active listening by concentrating , restate what your partner is thinking or feeling. Ask questions. Avoid criticism, sarcasm or insults. Try not bringing up other topics or old arguments. Talk together about options. Consider practicing what you want to say. Talk honestly as anger, fear, and resentment are normal responses to having cancer. Hiding your feelings creates distance.

My husband is quite positive and at times became inpatient with my fears and worries. We tried to use humor to laugh. It is suggested if communication with your partner is difficult, consider a counselor or support group.

Shifting responsibilities and accepting help

Each partner has specific roles. Your cancer itself and treatment might leave you unable to complete your usual duties and tasks. Your partner might need to start picking up these duties. The added responsibilities may become overwhelming and lead to frustration and resentment. You may feel guilty, sad and frustrated. Talk openly with your partner. Accept help from friends, family and friends.

Physical needs

Communicate your needs. I remember barely being able to shower. It felt like I had done a day’s work and needed to return to bed. I needed help to wash my hair and get dressed. Be specific and ask for the help that you need. Your loved ones may not realize your limitations unless you tell them.

Sexual intimacy

Sex drive may be lowered or intimacy may be uncomfortable during your experience with cancer. Both partners may feel anxious and hesitant to talk about this sensitive topic. Speak with a counselor or your physician to address these needs and changes. You may find other ways to be intimate that meet both your needs.

Looking at the future

Having cancer can affect your plans for retirement, travel, or long-range plans. Reevaluate your priorities, establish new short-term goals. My granddaughter and family became my priority. I vowed to never miss an opportunity to spend time together. We celebrated my completion of chemotherapy by planning a family trip.

Dealing with friends and family

It is helpful to appoint one person in charge of giving medical updates as it is stressful to repeat medical information and answer the same questions repeatedly. I wish I had done this sooner, as I avoided answering the phone and dreaded the constant questions. You can expect some relationships to change. Some family or friends might be frightened, not offer support, and distance themselves. I felt hurt when my niece demonstrated this behavior and only now understand why.

My best advice

Let people help. Be direct about your needs, prepare a list. My loving son was a terrific support and always completed his “to-do list.”

As a cancer survivor, we know the overwhelming challenges that we face. We must be aware and address the above factors that influence our loved ones and family.1

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