April is Cancer Awareness Month in Canada. No one wants to get a cancer diagnosis – it is scary, uncertain and often an emotional time for the individual and the family. After the initial diagnosis is given and a treatment plan is agreed upon, it’s very important for loved ones to gather around and support the individual who is going through this trying time. The more support someone has, the better they will be able to manage the doctor’s appointments and – most of all – the uncertainty.
What to expect when someone you know has cancer
Potential Physical Changes
There are some common physical changes shared by many people with cancer. The cancer itself causes some of these changes and others are the result of side effects of cancer treatment. Keep in mind that each cancer journey is different. The person with cancer may or may not have any of the following:
- Hair loss, including eyebrows and eyelashes
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Appetite loss or increase
- Changes in how things taste or smell
- Extreme tiredness
- Pale skin and lips, or changes in skin colour
- Nausea and vomiting
- Problems with sleep
- Poor concentration
For many people with cancer, the hardest side effect to deal with is fatigue. People report that fatigue can be overwhelming, and they are surprised at how tired they can feel long after treatment ends. It can take a long time to heal after surgery, and people can feel tired for months after an operation. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can involve many weeks of strong medicines that worsen fatigue as the body heals.
Potential Emotional Changes
Each person reacts in their own way to cancer and its treatment. It’s normal to feel sad and grieve over the changes that a cancer diagnosis brings. The person’s emotions and mood can change from day to day, even from hour to hour. This is normal. A person with cancer may go through any or all of the following emotions and thoughts:
- A sense of lack of control
- Mood swings
- Much stronger and more intense feelings
- A sense of being disconnected or isolated from others
Over time, the person may discover some changes that are good:
- A greater sense of resilience or strength
- Peace, or a feeling of being at ease
- A clearer idea of their priorities in life
- More appreciation for their quality of life and the people they care about
Cancer can be very unpredictable. Someone with cancer can feel good one day and terrible the next. This is part of the difficulty for loved ones as they don’t understand this element. That is why it is important for friends and family to go with the flow on many occasions.
How does someone cope with cancer?
People develop all kinds of coping styles during their lives. Some people are quite private, while others are more open and talk about their feelings. These coping styles help people manage difficult personal situations, although some styles work better than others.
Some people use humour and find it to be a relief from the serious nature of the illness. However, we all deal with things differently and some people may become withdrawn and isolated from family and friends. A cancer diagnosis creates a lot of change. People often try to maintain as much control as they can in order to feel more secure. Some people become very angry or sad. They might be grieving the loss of their own healthy self-image, or the loss of control over their own lives.
How important is working to a person with cancer?
Facing cancer often brings with it an increased sense of the importance of work in a person’s life. Working can boost self-worth and help the person focus on what they’re able to do rather than on their illness. Work can be a safe haven away from the medical world and can help a person balance the feeling of being out of control.
Work is also a source of stability because it has a routine and is familiar. And work provides contact with other people. Cancer can be isolating, and being around people can be a great comfort. It may be very important for your co-worker to be at work as much as possible and be as productive as possible. Financial and insurance issues may also affect the decision to work during treatment.
How can cancer affect a person’s financial situation?
Cancer can cause money problems. The person may lose pay by being absent from work during and just after treatment. The worker’s pay may drop if shorter hours are worked while getting treatment or not feeling well. Employees may also need to pay more of their insurance premium if they work fewer hours or take time off for treatment. In some cases, health coverage may be stopped or decreased if they go to a part-time schedule. A lot depends on your workplace policies. It’s important for someone with cancer to understand in advance how schedule changes will affect their insurance, salary, and other benefits.
Frequent medical visits can also be a financial drain because of prescription costs and insurance co-pays (the part of treatment that insurance doesn’t pay). Co-pays can reach burdensome amounts. There are also parking fees, gasoline, and the costs of other services and equipment not covered by insurance. The costs add up very quickly.
Talking with someone who has cancer
Like many things in terms of health, it can be very challenging talking with someone who has cancer. You might not know the person very well, or you may have a close relationship. The most important thing you can do is mention the situation in some way that feels comfortable for you. You can show interest and concern, you can express encouragement, and/or you can offer support. Sometimes the simplest expressions of concern are the most meaningful. Sometimes just listening is the most helpful thing you can do. Responding from the heart is always a good rule of thumb.
While it’s good to be encouraging, it’s also important not to show false optimism or tell the person with cancer to always stay positive. Doing these things might seem to discount their very real fears, concerns, or sad feelings. It’s also tempting to say that you know how the person feels. But while you may know this is a trying time, no one can know exactly how any person with cancer feels.
Using humour can be an important way of coping. It can also be another approach to support and encouragement. Let the person with cancer take the lead; it’s healthy if they find something funny about a side effect, like hair loss or increased appetite, and you can certainly join them in a good laugh. This can be a great way to relieve stress and take a break from the more serious nature of the situation. But you never want to joke unless you know the person with cancer can handle it and appreciate the humor.
If they look good, let them know! Avoid making comments when their appearance isn’t as good, such as “You’re looking pale,” or “You’ve lost weight.” It’s very likely that they’re aware of it already, and they may feel embarrassed if people comment on it.
Respecting the privacy of someone who has cancer
If someone tells you that they have cancer, you should never tell anyone else unless they have given you permission. Let them be the one to tell others. It might feel awkward if you hear “through the grapevine” that someone has cancer. You could ask the person who told you if it’s public information. If it’s not, you probably shouldn’t say anything to the person with cancer. But if it is public information, don’t ignore it. You might say, in a caring way, “I heard what’s happening, and I’m sorry.”
You may feel angry or hurt if someone who’s close to you didn’t share the news of a cancer diagnosis with you right away. No matter how close you are, it may take time for the person to adjust to the diagnosis and be ready to tell others. Don’t take it personally. Focus on how you can support that person now that you know.
How do I get over feeling uncomfortable around someone who has cancer?
Feeling sorry for them, or feeling guilty for being healthy yourself, are normal responses. By turning those feelings into offerings of support you make the feelings useful. Asking how you can help can take away some of the awkwardness. Cancer is a scary disease. It can create a great deal of uneasiness for people who don’t have experience dealing with it. Don’t be ashamed of your own fears or discomfort. Be honest with the person about how you feel. You might find that talking about it is easier than you think.
Cancer often reminds us of our own mortality If you are close in age to the person with cancer or if you are very fond of them, you may find that this experience creates anxiety for you. You might notice feelings somewhat like those of the person who has cancer: disbelief, sadness, uncertainty, anger, sleeplessness, and fears about your own health.
Offering support to someone with cancer
It’s human nature to distance yourself from someone when they become ill. Cancer can force us to look at our own fears about illness, weakness, or death. This may make us reluctant to interact with someone facing cancer. But isolation can be a problem for people with cancer. Make an extra effort to reach out. Communication and flexibility are the keys to success.
Remember that the person you know with cancer may find it hard to ask for help or may be worried about seeming weak or vulnerable. If they need medical equipment or money for treatment, you can look into getting something donated or organize a raffle to help raise money. Or you can simply take up a collection to buy something that might not be covered by insurance. The person with cancer may look to you for advice regarding financial worries, work issues, or other concerns. Be honest. Help if you can, but if you feel uncomfortable, say so. There are many places a person can get help and support, and you might suggest seeking the advice of a professional who is best suited to give that kind of guidance.
Keep in mind, too, that those close to the person with cancer will also need help and support. A family member who is responsible for the care of the person with cancer can become isolated and stressed. If you know that person, you may want to check in to see how they are doing, too. They might also be able to share ideas about how you can best help the person with cancer.
Continue to treat your friend as normally as possible. Don’t feel that you always have to talk about cancer. Include them in activities and social events. If they aren’t up to doing something, let them be the one to decide to say no. Keep inviting them unless they tell you otherwise. Ask what would be most helpful.
Most importantly, make sure that your friend or family member is taken care of. This may require some additional support in the home. If your loved one needs some help whether it be for medical assistance or just to have some further companionship, let them know they can give us a call. Our team at Annie’s Place has a wealth of experience in working with individuals who are going through cancer. We can offer support to the individual as well as respite care to families.