How to talk to a loved one with cancer

CBT for Cancer Therapist Clare Reed joins us today with a post especially for those who are caring for someone with cancer.

When a loved one gets diagnosed with a life-threatening condition it is easy to fall into the caring mode and take on a vigilant nursing persona. The roles can change instantaneously from a partnership of two lovers, to patient and nurse, or best friends, to nurse and patient. Likewise, with parents to children with cancer, there can be a big shift from parent and child to nurse and patient.

What do I mean by a nursing persona? Well, it mostly comes down to communication. A different tone of voice can take over when talking to the patient, from the usual bantering tone to the ‘Are you alright?’ tone with a quizzical top note. After a while once they have come to terms with their diagnosis, most patients want things to return to normal, to have their partner, husband, wife, Mum, Dad back and not the nursing imposter who has taken over.

Before assuming the role of nurse, ask your loved one how they want to be treated by you. If you have a fairly independent partner, they will start to feel claustrophobic if you are all over them with questions about how they are feeling or if you cancel plans to keep them in sight of you. If you have a needy loved one, they may expect you to run around all day after them and be at their beck and call.

Most carers assume the nursing role, as they think this is the right thing to do, or they think it’s what people expect of them. But certainly, for adults and most older children, this is not what they want or need. They need their partner in crime, their mate, their Mum or Dad to just be themselves, to keep some sort of semblance of normality for them, outside of the hospital setting.

Limit the ‘What’s wrong?’ panic question every time your loved one emits an ‘ouch’ or sigh. These words ‘What’s wrong?’ can really irritate the ears of a loved one and in turn make them irritable with you. They may snap, ‘You know what’s wrong with me! I have cancer!’ and then the pair of you will feel hurt or guilty for being snappy. So, refrain from asking the obvious but do have an agreement with your loved one, from the diagnosis onwards, that they will let you know if they do think there is something wrong.

Being too polite at dinner or nights out can cause another issue. Asking ‘Would you like some wine?’ or ‘Shall we order pudding?’ when you know they are possibly on a strict diet and avoiding temptations. Abstaining is hard enough for the majority of patients without people being polite and offering such ideas to them. Help them along by not being so polite and if they say they will have a glass of wine, so be it.

Likewise, scrutinising your loved ones every mouthful and asking if they should eat or drink a particular food or drink will build resentment. It is hard to see a loved one potentially sabotaging their health, but it is their body. The best time to raise such a question is at another time, when they don’t have the drink or food in their hand. If it comes down to a lack of willpower on their part, ask them what you can do to help them with their willpower. If the loved one is your young child, it won’t hurt to point out why a particular food or drink may be compromising their health in easy-to-understand child terms, as they probably do not understand why consuming junk food will not help them regain their immune system and strength.

At the end of treatment, take your lead from them. You might feel like throwing a party and whooping for joy but sadly a lot of cancer patients end their treatment in fear because suddenly, they are out of the comfort setting of the hospital and on their own without medical support. So, don’t say it’s great that the disease, etc is finished with, or thank goodness it’s over or behind them. People with life-threatening conditions would have met a good number of patients during their treatment who may have been back into treatment multiple times so they know that they may not be out of the woods yet. Instead do tell them how brilliant they are for getting through the treatment and how strong and determined they are and of course how much you love them. And most importantly ask them what they want to do to mark the end of the treatment.

Coping with a life-threatening health condition is such an incredibly stressful time for carers and patients that it is no wonder some relationships end during treatment or after it. If you are having difficulty with your partner or child and don’t know how to handle things or communicate with them, don’t hope things will resolve themselves naturally. I know from working with many clients who left it too late and came to me after a relationship separation, triggered by a difficult medical condition, that they wished they had tackled the issues sooner and sought help.

Clare offers CBT for carers as well as patients, as she was once a carer herself, as well as now being a cancer survivor too and understand both sides of the story really well. She loves to help people get through their treatment journeys and out the other side with their sanity and relationships intact. She can help you use cognitive behavioural techniques to provide you with great coping mechanisms and coaching in communication skills and actions to help you be the carer you want to be. Contact her for more information through her website All Clare’s therapy sessions are conducted by Skype, making her therapy easily accessible from home and wherever you are in the world.

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