What To Expect From Your Family


While every family is different, you and your family can and should have certain expectations of one another if you are to live with a chronic illness. Cancer does not happen only to one person. Cancer's impact will be felt throughout your family, and there is little you can do to protect or shield them from that impact. The same can be said for families who sometimes try to "protect" the patient from upsetting news or events. The desire to protect loved ones is understandable, but often it's impossible and uses up energy that could be better spent helping you cope.

The most important thing you and your family can do for one another is to be honest about what you are experiencing or feeling. With an illness like cancer, you and your family will develop fears about the future. Once you express these feelings, it will become easier to build hope for the future without the burden of unspoken fears and anxiety.

Sometimes you and your family will feel out of step with each other. You might be feeling quite hopeful while your spouse is feeling pessimistic and frightened, or vice versa. This may be upsetting, but just remember that people have different experiences, personalities, and attitudes that influence how they react to certain situations. Some people are more naturally optimistic than others. Talking about differences within an atmosphere of mutual respect will help you reach more of a common ground. It is human nature to want to avoid situations and feelings that cause us pain. However, avoiding painful feelings will only make the situation worse.


Sometimes people think that by acknowledging the uncertainty of the future they will rob the patient of hope or a positive attitude about getting well. Instead, the opposite is true. It is common for someone with a cancer diagnosis to experience periods of uncertainty about the future. It's important to talk about those feelings and anxieties so they will not interfere with your ability to feel hopeful. Most people with cancer develop hope for a cure or, at least, long-term control of their illness. This is impossible to do if you ignore normal uncertainties about the future. If following your initial diagnosis and treatment you are unable to feel hope at all, you may want to consider professional help. (See COUNSELING) The same is true if you and your family are having trouble sharing your feelings with one another. The physical changes and problems that cancer treatment may cause are serious enough without the extra burden of severe emotional stress.


When someone has cancer, normal family routines are often disrupted. Patients may need to be hospitalized for surgery, or they may require weekly chemotherapy treatments or radiation therapy on a daily basis. When this happens, family members may need to take over responsibilities once handled by the patient. Family members may be willing to do this, but there may also be times when some are upset by the changes. Examples might include: (1) fathers feeling ill-equipped to meet the needs of small children; (2) wives managing the family finances if that has traditionally been the husband's responsibility; (3) teenagers cooking dinner if a parent is hospitalized, and so on.

Even in the most loving families, it is normal to feel some resentment when one member is ill and unable to carry on as usual, especially when the situation continues for a long time. Sometimes patients refuse to give up their responsibilities out of their need for independence or a concern that they will become a burden to their families. As a general rule, you should continue to do as much as you did before the diagnosis as long as there is no medical reason not to. If decisions need to be made about a temporary reshifting of family responsibilities, you should participate in those decisions. Family members need to realize that it's common to feel anger or resentment because family life is different than it was before the diagnosis. They also need to find a way to share those feelings.


There are times when families are unable to help the patient as much as they would like. Families may be unavailable for a variety of reasons, such as limited financial resources, conflict that makes cooperation difficult, health reasons, or other pressures—all unrelated to the cancer diagnosis. In some cases, families are separated from one another by geographic distance. Some patients don't have families to call upon. In those instances, community agencies can help a patient maintain a reasonable quality of life. See the Table of Contents for finding these agencies. Cancer can place demands on families that community agencies are equipped to relieve. It is our hope that this guide will give you information about what is available to you so that you can effectively cope with cancer. As a person with cancer, you are not alone. There are people who care and who are ready to help.


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