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- Helping People Cope: A Guide For Families Facing Cancer
What To Expect From Your Family
HONESTY AND COMMUNICATION
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
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
CHANGING FAMILY ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES
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.
HELP FROM OUTSIDE THE FAMILY
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 pressuresâ€”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