Articles for Our Patients ~ Susan E. Carter, Ph.D., MFT


When Someone You Know Has Cancer

Author: Susan E. Carter, Ph.D., MFT • Language: ENG

Finding out that someone you know has been diagnosed with cancer prompts many deep emotions and thoughts, as well as numerous questions and concerns. It is also important to remember that you have your own strong feelings and concerns that need to be addressed and processed before you may be able to help them with theirs. You may question what you can do or say to help the one you love.


You must be clear that you cannot "fix" this tragedy, but you may be able to help ease the way. You may wonder what you would do if it were you, or whether you will be risking your own health by helping them. Some of you may completely forget to take care of yourselves, while focusing on the care of another.


Remember, you cannot care for another if you don't care first for yourself. It is also important to remember that their feelings and thoughts may differ from yours, and that they may experience shock, denial, anger, fear, sadness, anxiety and overwhelming feelings. These are all normal emotions, and the most important thing you may be able to do is to listen attentively while they express these emotions.


They do not need placations and false reassurances, such as "it will be OK" or "you will be fine." By focusing on the feelings first, you will be able to focus beyond the feelings later. The most important gift you may give them is just to listen... so listen, listen, and listen!


Cancer is much more than a medical condition, it can cause changes in relationships, jobs, physical appearances, spiritual beliefs, feelings, and priorities. Their lives may change dramatically, and they may need some practical help, such as rides, food, house cleaning, medical advocacy, someone to go to with them to doctor appointments or treatments.


It is important to offer help, but don't push or pressure them. You may "invite and offer," but don't be a bully. Ask them what would and would not be helpful. Do not force them to accept advice or help that they refuse. This is the time to allow them to be self-focused and selfish; this is your time to be helpful and selfless.


Robert Frost's simple advice is important to remember, "Good fences make good neighbors." Remember, that there is a healthy difference and distance between you and your friend or loved one, and try to remember to keep your boundaries.


Resentment and burnout can be a result of becoming too involved in another's life. It is OK to occasionally walk in their moccasins and empathize with them, but remember that when you leave them at the end of the day, you should leave their moccasins with them. If you walk off with their shoes or their problems, they may feel powerless and unsure of what steps to take without you.


You want to support and help them, not take over and control. Remember that it is not your job to change this event, but you may be able to ease the way for them during this experience. The best advice is: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." - Reinhold Niebuhr

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