Bond through life passages — 14 August 2008
Managing emotions in families during cancer treatments

This column is based on a talk I gave to cancer patients and their families at the Katz Resource Center at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz California, and includes attendees’ comments and wisdom.

When you or a member of your family is diagnosed with cancer you enter a period of intense, overwhelming emotions that at times may seem to be intolerable and unmanageable. Learning to understand these intense feelings can help you manage them more effectively and help you feel more empowered.

The diagnosis of cancer is an emotionally shattering personal earthquake. Common reaction are; “I was in shock, disbelief, thought the test results were not mine, felt chilled and shaky, felt faint, was numb, wanted to run, felt sick to my stomach.” Few people recollected; “I suspected it, was not alarmed, only worried about my spouse’s reaction”. Whatever your or your family member’s initial response was, it was the best way for you to deal with the overwhelming diagnosis.

During cancer treatments, patients and families find it very difficult to share their emotions openly. The patient is often guarded in order not to alarm the loved one and the family member may not even feel entitled to express his or her feelings. Yet, suppressing emotions is unhealthy.

Research at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center found that spouses and patients report similar physical and emotional quality of life.
A large study supported by The National Cancer Institute and conducted in several medical centers including UCSF, titled, “What Concerns me”, listed the most common emotions patients and their loved ones experience as; Anxiety (46%), Fear (25%), depression (12%) and anger (9 %). You may have felt and continue to feel these emotions at times.

Though these and other emotions may be uncomfortable, they are actually normal, healthy and helpful in achieving emotional balance.

It is appropriate to feel anxiety about the uncertainty of treatment outcomes and your future life, and it can become a motivator for new planning. Fear mobilizes you to take steps to protect yourself, depression may be a phase in processing grief, and anger is an alert mechanism to combat the cancer enemy that has invaded your body, life and family. When these emotions are intense and non-yielding for over two weeks, professional consultation is advisable.

I call the close family members who physically and emotionally assist the cancer patient, ‘The Compassionate Companion/s’. Though they may provide caregiving, their primary commitment is to offer the patient support, help and love throughout the recovery journey.

Both the patient and the compassionate companion are wise to:

• Understand that emotionally you share the same feelings.
• Abstain from withholding painful emotions for fear of upsetting the other. Sharing them is reassuring and supportive, manifesting your deep love for each other.
• Shed tears together. It is bonding, releases the grief and leads to greater calmness.
• Ask each other: “How are you doing?” and “What can I do to make it easier for you?”
• Express appreciation for receiving help and for the honor of providing it.
• Reiterate your love for each other every day.

Compassionate companion:

• Take time out for yourself. You are not selfish in doing so, but rather loving through bolstering your capacity to be of greater help.
• Support the patient’s self-view of the past, (such as being self-sufficient, independent, head of the family) by highlighting behaviors that still support his/her self view and following the patient’s lead.
• Attempt to approximate normal life patterns as much as possible.

The patient:

• Abstain from feeling guilty about needing assistance. Remind yourself that you would have willingly done the same for your loved one.
• Support your compassionate partner’s time away from you.
• Take steps to best care for and protect your loved one while you are ill and in the future.

Cancer can best be managed through your loving team approach.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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