Family, Forgiveness, and Other F-Words - When Cancer Causes Family Strife

Last updated: September 2021

Family. Forgiveness. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuu...  Well, you get the idea. Today we are going to talk about all three because nothing reveals the people who are really with you and the ones who really aren’t, faster than the Big C. The way those close to you respond to your illness, especially loved ones, can be amazingly compassionate and helpful so much so that it brings you closer than ever, or soul-sucking, shockingly ignorant, vomit-inducing, repulsively awful. Probably there are some steps in between, too.

Cancer is a heavy lift

As I am fond of saying, cancer is a heavy lift. It is not something that most people can do on their own and, inevitably, those closest to you are going to be the ones you reach out for, and naturally so – family is supposed to be there for you when times are tough. The only problem is that cancer can not only show you how strong those bonds are but also expose the ones that are less reliable than a Caribbean music festival. When those ugly sides start to show, there’s no way around it and we become easy targets. Why? Because we are spending all of our energy fighting for our lives and there’s rarely any left to deal with your sibling screaming the f-word in your face because you forgot to order the stuffing for Thanksgiving.

Why are people like this? That’s the question most of us will ask because when you hear the word “cancer” and “family” in the same sentence you just drop everything and help, no questions asked, right? That’s what anyone reading this is probably saying to themselves but if that were true then there wouldn’t be community members posting horror stories about siblings making their cancer all about themselves, spouses who divorce during chemo, and parents who refuse to pitch in.

Is it jealousy?

I think one of the main causes of these rifts stems from jealousy. This particularly ugly emotion can take many forms. Some loved ones can’t stand the fact that they are no longer the center of attention and thus become jealous of whoever actually has cancer. I know, seems unbelievable, but I’ve seen it too many times – usually, a sibling, one who is used to being the greatest show on Earth, can’t handle the fact that everyone is fawning over someone else for a change. It can even lead to this person suddenly being stricken with another “illness,” in extreme cases, and is just a mess for all involved.

Another form this jealousy can take is what I like to call resource envy. When you have cancer, people give you rides to chemo, buy you the food you love so you’ll eat as much as possible, and the family spends what they can to make you as comfortable as humanly possible while you fight for your life. If you want pheasant under glass for dinner, chances are, someone’s gonna go get a pheasant, a roaster, and some glass to serve it up under, just to see you eat. This can rub some people the wrong way, parents, siblings, spouses – it doesn’t matter, they can become envious of the fact that family’s limited resources, which they are working to provide, are all going to you. Again, I know you are saying, “I would never do this!” Well, someone is doing it because it happens more than you think.

How should we deal with this?

So how do we deal with this? I mean, it’s family and you are sick so it’s not like you can just swear them off and never talk to them again. I mean, you can do that but it’s going to make for some very awkward Friday pizza nights. “Can you pass me a slice of pepperoni... YOU FLAMING ASSHAT?!” Actually, that might make it more fun, whatever, you get the point!

We have to find a way to exist post-cancer, or at least post-diagnosis with the people we (supposedly) love. I think first and foremost we must remember that normal, reasonable, human beings get frustrated – even when doing normal, reasonable, human things! So, when something as serious and devastating as cancer comes along it can make normal, reasonable, humans do some pretty unreasonable, inhuman things! I’m not excusing the behavior, I’m just saying keep this in mind before you order a task rabbit to go and smash someone’s windshield.

Having a serious discussion

In addition, there’s always the option of talking to the person. I know when chemo hits you want to have a serious discussion about behavior about as much as you want another hour-long PET scan, but it might prove fruitful. This is especially useful in cases where the person in question is acting totally out of character, and that will happen with at least one or two of your loved ones. It happened to me – someone who I was one-hundred percent, absolutely, locked-down sure would be there for me disappeared faster than a close-talker at a garlic festival. It was so out of place that I was stunned and I eventually just called them up on the phone and said, “what the fuuuuuuu.. dge is going on?” (Keepin’ it PG, you know, for the kids.) It turns out that person had recently dealt with a cancer-related death and was having some pretty serious mental reservations about possibly doing it again. The point is, you won’t know unless you ask so if you have the mental energy, give it shot.

Before we go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t make something perfectly clear. If you are in a situation where you are being harmed or neglected by a loved one, the stuff above does not apply. If you have a spouse that has effectively abandoned you and you end up fending for yourself to the point of tears, then you need to tell someone. That’s not strife with a family member, that’s a bonafide jackass and there’s no turning that flaming garbage barge around. Tough love, yes. Sound advice – yes, also. Above all else though, remember, getting cancer isn’t your fault. Talk soon.

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