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How to Cope with a Cancer Diagnosis in the Family

Updated on June 24, 2013
Cancer is an emotional and trying circumstance for everyone who is connected to the patient.
Cancer is an emotional and trying circumstance for everyone who is connected to the patient. | Source

I was twenty-three when my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. What started off as a trip to the emergency room (for prolonged flu-like symptoms) turned into a life changing event for me and my family. The original diagnosis was three to six months, but my mom passed away a little over a month later.

Throughout the entire event I was crushed and had to deal with emotions and pain I had never felt before. Experiencing the death and diagnosis of someone close was very, very hard, but I did have some good friends who helped me along the way and I feel like the following will be good advice for anyone who was as young as I was and for anyone who doesn't know how to deal with the pain and emotions that come with it.

We've all seen the movies, the TV ads and the magazines that talk about Cancer, but nothing can prepare you for what it will be like for you personally.

A cancer diagnosis is nothing short of life changing for everyone.
A cancer diagnosis is nothing short of life changing for everyone. | Source

How to Accept and Come to Terms with the Cancer Diagnosis

We've all heard of the 5 Stages of Grieving and the steps that everyone goes through after being diagnosed with Cancer. Certain people can handle the news better than others, while some people take longer to come to terms with this life changing event.

Depending on each family members' personality, some may need more support than others. You may end up finding yourself with more responsibility and being relied upon on a whole new level.

For me, accepting what was happening was devastating. I had made plans before the diagnosis to move states away from my family which turned everything I had set into order upside down. Instead of meeting up with my boyfriend, I ended up being states away from him and relying on my family on a whole new level. Instead of driving a wedge between our family, it actually brought us closer together as we had no other way of getting through this event.

In this critical moment in everyone's life. There is no other way of coping other than relying on other people. Whether it's friends or family, don't forget that they are an important source of strength.

A Few Cancer Terms (in Human Terms)

A sample that is taken and then looked at under a microscope to determine whether cancer cells are present.
A tumor that is not cancerous.
The spread of cancer through the circulatory system (blood) from one part of the body to another.
Cancer doctor

A good resource to understanding all the terminology that deals with cancer can be found on the US Oncology website.


Resources for Cancer Patients and Families

Cancer Terminology - A list of terms that are associated with the treatment and diagnosis of cancer.

ACOR (Association of Cancer Online Resources) - An online community/support group with different forums for various types of cancer.

American Cancer Society - A list of websites and resources to find support groups and information in your local area.

How to Be Supportive of the Family Member with Cancer

This is a tricky matter. As you can imagine, every single person takes the diagnosis differently so there's no one answer to how to be supportive. In some families that never talk about their feelings or how to get through any situation, this may be a very difficult time for them as they will not know how to talk to each other openly and honestly.

For families who are very close and used to talking about difficult subject matters, this will likely be very easy.

It's okay to be scared. Whether or not chemotherapy is chosen, it's okay to be a little uneasy or scared during appointments, surgeries and treatments. If the family member has to have wires or tubes to replace kidney or bowel functions, try to see past the hardware to the person. They are just as scared as you are (probably more so), and they really do need your support. Take the time you need to get used to the new circumstances and then do your best to be there for them whenever you can.

Some family members will be able to do more, while others will not have the stomach or strength to do any more than just talking or watching TV with whoever has the cancer. Use the time and opportunity you have. Don't waste it by being scared. It's fine to just say that you're scared and uneasy, that way it's out in the open and everyone can move past it.

Each person has their own way of coping.
Each person has their own way of coping. | Source

Whatever You're Feeling is Okay

Everyone is different and everyone feels and copes with situations differently. Whether it's anger, denial or sadness don't every beat yourself up with whatever it is that you're feeling.

You're not a terrible person. You are allowed to think of what's going to happen down the line. There definitely are moments where you are going to want to avoid thinking of the "what ifs" but allowing yourself that time and peace of mind to think about where your mind wants to wander is relieving in it's own way.

It also helps prepare you for what is to come. Whether or not the diagnosis is terminal, if your mind keeps jumping to what's going to happen once so and so is gone, allow it to. It does no good keeping things bottled up inside. However, I would find someone who you can talk to and feel comfortable with seeing you cry and be upset. There's a certain comfort in quietly thinking to yourself, but I found that having someone to lean upon helped me out more than I could have ever imagined.

Understand that Not Everyone's the Same

Helping someone else cope who is different than you is hard. There's surefire answer that tells you how to help each and every person. Some people prefer to be alone, some surrounded by others. Be as respectful of the other family member's feelings as you can. Give them space to accept what has happened, but keep watch over them. Sometimes people say they want to be alone and actually need to be around people.

If in doubt, ask them how you can help them. They may have an answer, they may not. It's something that everyone has to come to terms with, but on their own time. Don't force it.

Family is a good source of support and love.
Family is a good source of support and love. | Source

Find Someone You Can Talk to at All Times of the Day

Friends and family are your greatest source of strength. It's good to be able to hang out and be around friends who will not only allow you to express how you're feeling, but also ones that will not treat you differently.

You may find that there is some distance between you and some of your friends. Try not to focus too much on why and who doesn't have the time to spend with you. You have enough on your plate to be worrying with people who don't respect your time and are unavailable to you. There will be friends and family who will do everything that they can for you. Even if they are going through finals or have two jobs, they will make the time to be with you.

This may be someone from your church, a long lost school friend, a girlfriend or boyfriend, a relative, a neighbor ...accept help where you can get it. Your friends and people around you are there for you if you let them.

Find Out Who Your True Friends Are

This is one of the unfortunate things that will come to light during this process. You will undoubtedly find out who your true friends are in these times. Friends who are too busy to talk or to get together should not be worried about. Instead, focus on those who will talk to you at all times of the day (or night) and will just be there for you when you're having bad thoughts or just feel sad.

Find Advice from Others with Similar Experiences

Friends and family are also a good source of experience. Undoubtedly there will be some who have gone through a similar experience as you and will be able to give you advice. If you can find someone who has gone through a similar circumstance as you, and they are someone you know, you'll feel better about asking questions and letting your emotions show because you'll know that they will understand and not treat you differently.

Smothering family members can be overwhelming  under the circumstances.
Smothering family members can be overwhelming under the circumstances. | Source

How to Deal with Smothering Family and Friends

This part of the entire experience was by far the thing that made me the most upset. Sure, I understood that people wanted to let me know that they were here for me and that they wanted answers, but the immediate family really needs time to process the information first before they start letting everyone know what is going on.

There are so many appointments that have to be scheduled and maintained, as well as doctor's appointments, nurses, insurance calls, hospital bills and so much more. There were days when I just went to Walmart just to get away from neighbor's ambushing me to know how my mom was doing and to ignore constant texts asking if the results came back from the biopsy. Sometimes, it was just nice to talk to someone (a random guy at Walmart asking what hat I liked better for him or a cashier at the department store) who didn't know that I was the girl with a mom who was terminally ill.

Finding an escape and a place to go to where you can be alone is essential. Find someone or something to unwind around. It's okay to tell people to give you a little bit of space and that you'll let them know when you know. Anyone who doesn't understand is in the wrong, not you.

Try to keep as much of a normal schedule as you can. It will help make you feel better and bring back some control into your life.
Try to keep as much of a normal schedule as you can. It will help make you feel better and bring back some control into your life. | Source

Keep At least One "Normal" Thing in Your Life

Whether or not you have to take off work to take care of the family member with cancer, try to keep some parts of your life normal. If you're able to, go back to work. It will be hard the first week, especially the first day, but having some sort or normalcy will help keep you sane.

Be seep traditions alive to the best of your ability. There will be a lot of doctor appointments and scheduling issues, but if you are able to continue going out for dinner every Sunday or going to the movies every Friday like your normally do, it will help improve your mood.

Instead of feeling like you can't control anything in your life, keeping a normal schedule or incorporating as much normalcy back into your life will make you feel better.

New Hobbies to Try Out

  • Textile crafts (need felting, croqueting, knitting, quilting, embroidery...)
  • Mechanical (engineering, solar panels, rebuilding a car...)
  • Outdoors (hiking, photography, fishing...)
  • Artsy (painting, drawing, sculpting, animation...)

Keep Your Mind Busy

There's not a whole lot of that you can do under the circumstances, so the best way to combat the "what if" thoughts and the constant emotional anxiety is to find something to work on that will keep your mind busy. The longer the project takes and the more you don't know about the subject, the better.

If you can find an interest (which is sometimes hard) use it as your escape. I remember becoming pretty fascinated with solar panels and energy saving methods while I was trying to figure out how to make it to the next day. It was something that I knew nothing about, but it seemed interesting and kept my mind busy while I tried to research if you could power photography lights with them.

You may find yourself not caring to do too much of anything, which is certainly normal. Going to movies, reading a book and hiking are also relaxing ways to keep your mind busy.

Love, support and laughter help coping with cancer a lot easier.
Love, support and laughter help coping with cancer a lot easier. | Source

Conclusion and Closing Thoughts

There's no reason as to why some things happen. Take control of what you can and don't worry unnecessarily about things that you can not change. It's easier to take things one step, one doctor's appointment and one treatment at a time.

Try to keep your mood up by taking a break and finding ways to escape every one in a while. Continue to hang out with friends and do things that your normally would do if everything was the same in the house.

Remember that every one takes things differently and some people will have a harder time than others. It takes times to get over the initial shock of the cancer diagnosis and to adjust to the new lifestyle that you'll be having. It's okay to be scared and to talk to people about how you're feeling. People want to be there for you and your family, so if you feel up to it, let them be there for you.

It's going to be hard, but enjoy the time, memories and experiences that you'll be having. Being able to laugh and have fun even in the most difficult times is more healing than any other medicine a doctor can give. You'll be surprised at all the support, love and warm wishes that will come to your family.


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