In our latest conversation with in-house psychologist Hana Jamali, we covered the topic of the role of loved ones and cancer. War On Cancer is here to radically improve the mental health and wellbeing of everyone affected by cancer, including loved ones. Hana Jamali broke down the experience of a cancer diagnosis from a loved one’s perspective, and how to cope with someone you love being diagnosed with cancer.
It turns out, loved ones may experience an even greater negative effect on their mental health than someone going through cancer. Hana explains that it has to do with something as boring as the way our minds focus and what exactly they focus on. If you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re going through something both physical and mental and your brain space and energy is focused on getting you through both the very practical aspects of cancer treatment and the mental health effects.
Yet, as a loved one, you “only” endure the mental health aspects – that is, you’re not going through physical treatment. Rather, yours is an emotional and psychological experience. This means there’s more time to focus on what’s happening emotionally, space for rumination and accumulating fear, and less energy focused on actually getting through treatment one step at a time.
If you’re diagnosed with cancer, your emotional and physical state may be more in sync with each other which can make it easier to accept certain aspects of experiencing cancer. Loved ones, on the other hand, aren’t on a physical journey – cancer affects them differently which means the experience has its own unique timeline. Plus, loved ones are less likely to receive professional help when going through cancer (though that seems to be changing, it has a long way to go), which can also prolong the road towards improved mental health.
So what can loved ones of people going through cancer do today to cope with a cancer diagnosis? Here are Hana’s tips.
Be aware of your assumptions about cancer
The first thing that happens when we hear a word like “cancer” is that we make a lot of assumptions. Cancer has been around a lot of people’s lives so we have some kind of idea of what it can entail and have an idea of what it can be or look like.
Try to be aware of your assumptions about cancer. Notice them. Then, talk to your loved ones and tell them how you’re feeling. Be very clear about the fact that you don’t want to add any weight on them but rather, that you want to be a good support for them.
A good way to open the conversation is to, well, keep it open. Start by telling them that you’re experiencing emotions but then ask them how they’d like to approach this in your relationship – whether it’s a family member, romantic partner, or close friend. Note that the way that you deal with these emotions and address them together may change over time and that’s okay. Focus on the now – what do you need and what do I need? When you’re feeling overwhelmed, what is the best way to handle those feelings in a way that is constructive for the relationship? Discuss how to take care of that.
It’s important to remember that just because you voice your needs doesn’t mean that they can all be fulfilled within that relationship. Maybe you need to go somewhere else to talk about aspects of a cancer diagnosis, discussing with a friend or psychologist. Other things can be worked out together to deepen your relationship during the hard time.
By setting expectations and communicating clearly about it, it’s easier to be a team and face cancer as a united front, rather than misunderstanding each other and causing tension in your team.
Understand that going through cancer can make our behavior and feelings shift unexpectedly
Pre-cancer or any big and unexpected curveball life throws at us, we think that we have some kind of control over the way we act, how we feel, what we think. When we have to deal with a cancer diagnosis, it’s normal that our feelings and behaviors might change faster than they usually do when we’re experiencing life in which we feel a certain level of control. Talk about these shifts.
For example, if your loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, ask them how they’d like you to react when they’re upset or happy or sad. How can I enhance your joy? What is the best way to go about supporting you when you’re feeling low?
A common trait among loved ones is that you feel that you’re not doing enough. By talking and asking your partner, family member, or friend how you can support them during the ups and downs of going through cancer first-hand, you can easily sort that out and not have to deal with that worry by yourself. Rather, you’re taking an action on that fear and making sure that your support is effective.
Don’t try to solve the problem of cancer
When going through hardship, it’s common as a couple or as a family member, to tend to look at the problem and try to solve it. The tough part about this and cancer? It’s not really a problem you can “solve.”
Instead, what you actually need is to fill your life with more of the things that keep you and your loved one together and strengthen you in order to accept or handle the problem, instead of trying to solve it. When you have those things, then you have the tools and the energy to attack the problem. Experiencing positive and good situations together, it strengthens you and makes you more resilient towards cancer.
Let’s be clear – we’re not saying to forget the problem or that there is no problem. What Hana explains is that by focusing on strengthening your relationship and what you are good at, you become more capable of facing the problem together. Go out and do things that you like. Losing connection with your loved one is often the result of losing contact with what you love to do with each other. If you can’t or aren’t able to because you’re sick, then try to do that but in a different kind of context.
Approach a shift in dynamics between you and your loved one with curiosity
A cancer diagnosis can cause a shift in dynamics between two people, no matter the nature of the relationship. For example, if your happy-go-lucky friend has been diagnosed with cancer, they may experience existential thoughts which change their perspective, mindset, or behavior. The same goes for loved ones of those diagnosed with cancer. It’s also possible that a cancer diagnosis affects two people in the same way (which also changes the dynamic). Perhaps both become more driven or calm or reflective or carpe diem or whatever it is. Or, it may be that your core personality types become even stronger. Whatever the shift, there’s usually something that happens in a crisis.
Again, it’s not about solving that or trying to make the dynamic go back to what it was. Instead, be mindful about that change – how can you be curious about this? What is going on? Something is happening. Are there good things that you can keep after all of this? How can we complement and support each other during these shifts?
Or, does the shift in dynamics mean that you’ve been different all along and shouldn’t be together? Maybe you’ve had problems all along and this crisis has enhanced those problems?
Keep in mind, usually problems don’t appear because you’re in a crisis, but they usually deepen or give you insight.
Whatever it is, learn how to be aware and put words to the shift in dynamics (talk about it). The most fun way to approach it is to be curious about it and what to do.
Remember to enjoy the small moments in life that give you energy
Fabian Bolin, Co-founder at War On Cancer and blood cancer survivor shares his insight, for those diagnosed with cancer and loved ones:
“Since going through cancer, I’ve taken things more seriously. I’ve forgotten to sometimes just have fun and have a bit of enjoyment, so I’ve started to “task” myself daily with one thing for pure enjoyment or pleasure. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Today, for example, I went outside and bought an espresso and sat there in the sun for about 10 minutes, feeling the taste of the espresso and the warmth of the sun, and people-watched. It’s been such an effective tool to make life lighter. I do it for no other reason than for pure enjoyment. I think that it’s necessary to do, especially when going through hardship like cancer. Find that moment during that day – you do you, buy an ice cream. Swing on a swing. Find that pleasure.”
It’s normal for a lot of people to feel that experiencing simple moments of joy is quite trivial when going through something as big and serious as cancer. A lot of people think “how would that help my situation?” This is because we’re naturally programmed to problem-solve and it’s completely understandable to feel that way. But keep in mind, by missing out on enjoying yourself, you’re also depriving yourself of the energy and moments you need to experience in order to regain the energy to handle the hardship. Plus, life is a mixed bag – full of joy and sorrow, light and dark. Don’t let yourself miss out on the good parts.