children in forest.
(photo credit: )
My niece, a nurse, was recently diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer. She is
30 years old and the mother of a young baby. She was completely asymptomatic and
it was totally by chance that this was picked up. For those who actually have
symptoms that concern them, even if they seem like “nothing,” you owe it to
yourself and your family to get things checked out. This may lead to early
detection (which just might save your life), decrease stress or serve to put
your mind at ease, as more often than not it indeed proves to be nothing
That said, when a family member or friend has been diagnosed
with a serious illness, the emotional impact on both the individual and those
close to them can be enormous.
Cancer, for example, is a frightening
One can’t help but immediately imagine the worst-case scenario, and
these thoughts and negative images remain with those involved 24/7. One goes to
bed with them, wakes with them and is haunted by them during the night when he
awakens and can’t get back to sleep. The early days around diagnosis can be
stressful beyond words. Time seems to drag on forever between diagnosis and
treatment and the “what if’s” often take over.
How one copes with the
initial diagnosis depends on, among other things, personality, coping style,
perception of the illness and support from others. Diagnosis has several phases,
and as one travels through the initial period of shock, disbelief and eventual
adjustment, the journey is rarely smooth. With this roller-coaster ride
comes grief for what was, what could be and what isn’t.
There is a period
of anxiety, fear and even depression that may wax and wane as a treatment plan
Support is essential to both patient and caregiver,
and there are many ways that friends and family can help to make the initial
process more manageable. Here are just a few suggestions: Take your lead from
your loved one. Some people like to be active participants in deciding their
care, while others prefer to be uninvolved.
Some are secretive, and
others want support from anyone and everyone. Some people like to talk about the
situation and need to go over things in great detail, while others need to push
things to the back of their minds for as long as they can. There is no one best
way to cope. This is very much an individual thing, and it is only when one is
not coping that you need to be concerned.
Your job is to be there and to
People may want to talk for short periods of time, may
have lots to say and may waver between these two. This is all a very normal part
of the grieving process, and it can be totally absorbing. Keep from giving your
thoughts and opinions unless asked.
Encourage routine as much as
Routine provides everyone with a sense of stability when there
are so many unanswered questions and it is hard to plan or predict. This is
especially true for families who can benefit from some regularity around eating
and sleeping and other schedules that involve young children.
uncertainty. Recognize that your loved one may have rapid mood swings, fatigue,
anxiety, difficulty focusing and many other signs of normal adjustment to a very
abnormal situation. Your job is to help everyone focus on those things you can
control and, if nothing else, to get through the moment.
Offer to help in
any way you can. Fill the freezer, look after children, run errands, house sit
or do whatever you can to lighten the patient’s or the caregiver’s load so they
can focus on the important things. Encourage the caregivers to look after their
own physical and mental health and ensure that they take some time off and away
from their loved one, eat, exercise and rest. It is easy to become totally
consumed and exhausted in the short term when you need to save your strength for
the long haul. Remind your friend that he can’t do it all and that it is
important to share the burden. Caring for the caregiver is
Encourage caution in seeking information from the Internet. It
is hard to know what information is reliable, what sources to trust and how to
evaluate what you do read.
While there are many good, informative sites
that can be helpful, and knowledge can alleviate anxiety, there are also many
irrelevant personal stories to be found, and one person’s success or failures
may have nothing to do with someone else’s. It is best to ask professionals to
recommend relevant reading material and reputable websites.
situation and be positive.
Hope is essential. No matter how bad things
may seem, there are always positives to hold onto, and while we often imagine
the worst, our greatest concerns rarely become reality. It is important
to focus on the “here and now” and not on the “what if’s.”
Make sure that
young children and teenagers get the help they need in discussing their concerns
around diagnosis and treatment.
Children often know more than we think
they do and are quite sensitive to the mood around the house. It is easy to
ignore them as we deal with other seemingly more pressing concerns, but they
need attention and TLC. Help keep the lines of communication open while
providing as much ageappropriate information as you can.
It seems that it
is a rare family that does not have to deal with cancer at some point in their
lives. As you deal with both caregiver and loved ones, remember that your
presence can be an enormous gift to everyone.
May all your loved ones
Batya Ludman is a licensed clinical psychologist in private
practice in Ra’anana. Send correspondence to email@example.com or visit
her website at www.drbatyaludman.com.