by Dr. Angela Roman Clack~A diagnosis of cancer used to be a death sentence. However, we live in an age and time and in a world where East meets West and modern technology and holistic medicine is saving lives. Even so, the news of a cancer diagnosis is nonetheless devastating and scary.
The National Cancer Institute estimates that approximately 13.7 million Americans with a history of cancer were alive on January 1, 2012. Some of these individuals were cancer free, while others still had evidence of cancer and may have been undergoing treatment. About 1,660,290 new cancer cases were projected to be diagnosed in 2013. Anyone can develop cancer. Since the risk of being diagnosed with cancer increases with age, most cases occur in adults who are middle aged or older. About 77% of all cancers are diagnosed in persons 55 years of age and older (American Cancer Society.org).
Two weeks before this Christmas my sister in law called me to share news of a discovery of a lump in her breast. She shared she was scheduled for further testing in a couple of days. What followed was her experience of meeting with specialists and having to make decisions about the best form of treatment.
Imagine thinking about a cancer diagnosis while attempting to celebrate the Christmas holidays with family and friends. She was gradually accepting this possibility with the support of family and friends and through her faith until…my brother (her longtime boyfriend/life partner) went from being supportive to being overwhelmed. She texted me from her doctor appointment to have me call my brother. She said, “He just doesn’t get it.” I told my sister in law that I know she is hurting but I believe my brother is overwhelmed with the news and information they were being bombarded with from the different doctors they were seeing in a very short period of time.
Clearly, this is not one of those conditions that can wait. She began to feel his frustration. And what we know about many men is that they do not express hurt or sadness very well. Men can feel very helpless in the face of a medical crisis and that is out of their nature. Friends and families may also have a hard time adjusting to the cancer diagnosis. They may have to cope with increased responsibilities while trying to manage many different emotions. On top of this, they want to try to be sensitive to the needs of their loved one who has cancer (American Cancer Society.org).
I then wondered about how many other families and children suffer the collateral effects of a parent’s diagnosis of cancer. I remember some 12 years ago I worked for an organization that offered support groups to children with parents or siblings who were diagnosed with cancer; some children had already lost a parent or relative to cancer. I was amazed at the resiliency of the children in the group. They were well informed, had a good understanding of treatment options, and were quite capable of sharing their feelings as well as empathizing with the other children in the group. What I learned from those parents is that having cancer was not a secret and that they chose to have their children well informed and involved in the process. There were many weeks when I was overwhelmed with their grief. But I learned that support was the greatest form of love that would begin the healing process.
Families members, spouses and children will need to learn that it is not about them anymore, at least not while the individual is undergoing treatment. This is the time when family and spouses will need to garnish as much empathy as they muster up to be fully emotionally present and supportive of their loved one. When spouses and family do not understand, or feel confused, it may be helpful to have them attend the doctor appointments with you. But remember, find a doctor that can make the information relatively simple and clear. The last thing you want is an overwhelmed partner.
It would also be helpful to find a support group for yourself and your family members. Who better can empathize with the changes you and your partner/family are experiencing than someone else who has been there. But be aware and mindful to choose a couple or family that is coping in a healthy way.
If you are close to the person with cancer, simply saying something like, “I’m here when you’re ready to talk” will help keep the lines of communication open and offer your loved one the chance to share this experience with you. Your presence is also a way to show your support for the person with cancer. Don’t be afraid to share your fears and worries with your loved one with cancer. Being honest about these feelings can allow everyone to work through difficult times together (American Cancer Society).