By Ruth Oratz, MD, FACP
Reprinted by permission of Coping® magazine, copingmag.com.
Amid the initial shock of hearing the words “You have cancer,” innumerable questions enter your mind:What does this mean for me? How will this affect my partner, my children, my parents, my friends? What about my job? You begin to realize that cancer will have a profound effect not only on your life but also on the lives of those around you.
Though the unique shape and texture of each of your relationships varies, communication is the foundation on which all human relationships stand. Talking to others about what cancer means to you and reflecting on their reactions is the first step in figuring out how to manage the impact your cancer diagnosis has on each of your personal relationships.
The steadiness of your relationship with your significant other may be challenged during cancer. Your partner won’t know how you’re doing physically and emotionally unless you tell them. Sharing your needs and feelings will help your partner better understand what you’re going through and allow them to participate in your experience more closely. Aim to work together to find new meaning in your relationship and cultivate a strong physical and emotional bond.
The intrusion of cancer on your household will alter your family’s normal pattern of everyday life, and children of all ages will notice that something has changed. As difficult as it is to talk to children about cancer, pretending that nothing has changed isn’t generally a successful coping strategy.
The language you use and the amount of detail you provide should be based on the age and level of understanding of your children. Young children will likely be more worried and frightened if you leave things to their own imagination. Often the reality is less scary than the fantasy they create in their heads. Along with honest, age-appropriate information, your children will need reassurance that you still love them and want to spend as much time as possible with them, even though you may not always feel well and someone else may have to step in to take care of them now and then.
Older children may find solace in supporting you by helping out around the house or caring for younger siblings. However, some kids will act out, rebel, withdraw, and struggle in school. It’s a good idea to talk to your children’s teachers, coaches, counselors, and other school administrators about what’s going on at home. They can provide additional emotional support and observe how well your children are coping during school hours.
Added support from your extended family can be both a benefit and a burden. Trying to keep everyone updated on how you’re doing while also maintaining some semblance of privacy and personal space can leave you feeling overwhelmed. Consider designating a trusted friend or relative to be your “spokesperson.” He or she can send periodic group messages via email, social media, or other means to keep your loved ones up to date and to clear up any concerns they may have about your condition. Accept help from your family members when you need it, but know that it is OK to maintain boundaries and ask them to respect your privacy.
No matter what stage of life you’re in, it’s difficult to burden your parents with concerns about your own health and well-being. This is especially true if you’re the caregiver for an elderly parent. Depending on your parent’s physical, cognitive, and emotional condition, choose to share as much information about your diagnosis as seems reasonable. Do let your parent know if there will be a change in his or her normal routine, and allow other family members or caregivers to fill in while you focus on your health.
Friends, neighbors, and other members of your community will likely learn of your diagnosis eventually, but it’s best if you’re the one who controls the flow of information. Start by talking to your closest friends – the ones who are supportive, positive, and helpful. As you become more comfortable and begin to gradually open up to others about what’s going on in your life, don’t feel pressured to share any more information than what you feel is appropriate.
At times you may feel overwhelmed by the flood of support surging your way, and even the most well intentioned efforts can feel like an invasion of your personal space. Learn to politely but firmly thank others for their concern and tell them if you don’t need their help or would rather not talk about cancer right now. Your designated spokesperson can help manage the flow of well-wishers and messages from others to help you feel less inundated.
Perhaps one of the most delicate areas in which to negotiate relationships is in the workplace. You will likely need to take some time off work, or at least adjust your workload, to make time for treatment and recovery. Ask your healthcare team to explain the details of your treatment, including the number of clinic visits you’ll need to schedule, the length of time each treatment will last, and which side effects to expect and how to manage them. Then, let them know what your job entails so you can come up with a treatment schedule that will interrupt your normal routine as little as possible.
Be sure to study up on the legal and financial implications your diagnosis has on your job. Find out what your medical insurance will cover and if you’re entitled to any other benefits. Then consider discussing your condition with your supervisor so you can work together to come up with a strategy for accommodating your medical needs while ensuring your work is taken care of.
Dealing with cancer brings a new dimension to all of your personal relationships. Give yourself time to process your thoughts and feelings as you journey through treatment and recovery. Consider each of your personal relationships individually, and draw comfort and strength from the love and support of those who care about you.
Dr. Ruth Oratz is a board-certified medical oncologist who specializes in treating women with breast cancer. She is a clinical professor of medicine at the New York University School of Medicine, and she sees patients at the NYU Perlmutter Cancer Center in New York, NY.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2015. To view the article online, click here.