When people ask me about my family I usually answer, “I come from a dysfunctional Irish Catholic family.” That usually gets a good laugh—especially from the Irish Catholic ones.
But the truth is that all families have dynamics. Also known as subtleties. Undercurrents. Or the way your family is structured. How it works. As we grow up and look back, we understand a little better how we fit in to that dynamic. And we might make changes in our lives or in our parenting to acknowledge or change the dynamics in which we grew up. For example, children who grew up with parents who were not very expressive about their feelings often become parents who make sure that they tell their children how much they love them.
The bottom line, though, is if the dynamic “works” for you, and doesn’t hurt you or anyone else, then have at it! What works for one does not work for all!
Though I will admit that over the years, one of the most intriguing aspects of dealing with patients who have been diagnosed with a life threatening illness like cancer is understanding how they interact with their family and vice versa.
A health crisis like cancer brings with it a lot of feelings. Fear. Anxiety. Anger. Depression. You can’t help but feel the gamut of emotions. And it’s perfectly OK. Better out than in, I like to say. But if you are trying to express those emotions to your ‘we don’t talk about those things’ family, don’t be surprised if everyone looks a little uncomfortable.
When it comes to family dynamics with cancer, let me tell you what I tell patients for whom we are advocating. Cancer heightens family dynamics, it doesn’t fix them nor does it minimize them. So don’t be surprised if your brother, who’s always been the ‘comedian,’ is still ‘playing’ the comedian with tougher material with which to work. If your sister or mother has always buried her head in the sand when something ‘bad’ happens, chances are good she’s going to do that same behavior now that you’re dealing with cancer. You might want to think twice before you ask her to go with you to the oncologist’s office to discuss your treatment plan or review your test results.
Think of it this way, your partner/spouse, your parents and your siblings, even your children, are by-products of their family and the dynamics that occurred in that unit. They may not be capable of offering you what you need. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you or want to help. It just means they are not able to be someone they’re not. And a crucial time like dealing with a cancer diagnosis may not be the time to tackle this head on.
Instead, focus on the friends, family members twice removed, co-workers who CAN offer you what you need. Support can come from a variety of different and unique sources. Pursue those.