How Families Can Cope with Cancer
Coping with cancer isn’t easy, but there are things you and your family can do to adjust. Here are some suggestions:
Focus on your loved one
Your loved one needs your family to be an anchor in a sea of change. If confusion, conflict, or outright chaos threaten, bring your family’s focus back to your mutual goal – caring for your loved one. If you need help gaining perspective, a social worker, counsellor, or spiritual advisor can help.
Get practical support
Whether you need help with caregiving tasks, household chores, child care, or anything else, getting practical support is key to your family’s ability to adjust. Support can improve your loved one’s care, prevent caregiver burnout, and help your family make the most of the time remaining with your loved one.
Get emotional support
If anyone in your family is having trouble adjusting to your loved one’s illness, to caregiving, or to changes in family relationships, get professional help. Remember that your loved one may become unable to meet the family’s emotional needs as a spouse, parent, or sibling as before. A social worker, counsellor, spiritual advisor, or support group can help individuals or the whole family deal with emotional and spiritual concerns.
Take care of yourself
Even with lots of help, caregiving can be physically and emotionally demanding for everyone involved. See the Care for the Caregiver section for more information about the importance of self-care.
Effective communication can have a great impact on your family’s ability to cope with cancer and caregiving. Talk openly and regularly about important issues, such as your loved one’s illness, your feelings about your situation, and your family’s future. Make sure that you understand each other’s needs and concerns. See the section Communicating at the End of Life for more information.
Practice group efforts
If your family isn’t experienced in working together as a team, you may have trouble making important decisions about your loved one’s care and treatment. But it can help if you practice with smaller tasks (like planning a family outing or choosing a home care provider) before you face bigger issues (like making treatment decisions if your loved one becomes incapable, or making final arrangements.)
Take off your labels
Sometimes families fix members in prescribed roles – the practical one, the emotional one, the smart one, the rebel. If you can move beyond the limits of old labels, then you may discover new abilities, strengths, and ways to cope.
Learn more about your loved one’s illness and how to give care. These sections in particular can help – Nutrition, Practical Help for Basic Care, Keeping Organized, and Planning Ahead.
Engage your loved one
Your loved one may react to how the rest of the family adjusts. If family members are in denial about your loved one’s illness, then your loved one may have more difficulty preparing for death. If family members gain acceptance, then your loved one may feel more hopeful and prepared for the future. On a daily basis, keeping your loved one involved in caregiving tasks and family activities can improve your loved one’s quality of life, reduce your caregiving responsibilities, and enrich your family’s time together.
Be there for your loved one
Your loved one may never talk about cancer or dying, but make sure your loved one knows you’re there if you’re needed. Say, “I’m here when you’re ready to talk,” or simply, “I’m here.” If your loved one does open up, don’t worry too much about saying or doing the right thing. Just be yourself. Just listen. If you can’t give your loved one emotional support, find someone who can – a friend, counsellor, spiritual advisor, or support group.
Be there for your kids
If there are children in your family, they need extra comfort and reassurance, especially if it’s their parent who is ill. Tell kids what’s going on, encourage their questions, and give honest answers. Make sure they understand that they didn’t cause your loved one’s illness. Keep kids involved with your loved one – it helps everyone feel less isolated and more cared for. Try to stick to the regular routine for school, playtime, meals, chores, and bedtime. Balance teenagers’ need for independence with the family’s need for involvement. Tell your kids’ teachers about your situation. Ask other relatives, friends, and neighbours to help care for your kids and keep them company. For more information, see the section For Parents with Young Children.
Expect your loved one and your family to have good days and bad days. Try to have back-up plans and supports available. When family routines and rituals get disrupted, be creative about how to accommodate your family’s needs. If you can’t cook your traditional family supper every Sunday, can you go out for brunch instead? If the family can’t get out for movie night, would renting a video work?
Your loved one may behave in ways that make it difficult for your family to cope, like becoming demanding or manipulative, or withdrawing from young children who need love and comfort. While you may understand your loved one’s reactions, your family still deserves respect. If your loved one’s behaviour becomes unreasonable, consider having a family meeting with your loved one. Talk openly about challenges you share and develop solutions. If that doesn’t help, get support from a social worker or counsellor.
Enjoy family time
Regular family gatherings can meet practical and emotional needs. You can talk about challenges and achievements, give each other support, and simply be together. If your family has a regular spiritual practice, try to stick to your routine, but be flexible if you need to.
Keep the love alive
If it’s your spouse (or partner, or significant other) who is ill, physical or emotional changes may affect the usual ways you express love and affection. But communication and creativity can help you adjust. Challenge yourselves to find new paths to intimacy.