Let’s talk about the mental health experience of being a loved one of someone going through cancer. It’s quite natural and normal that when the topic of loved ones in the context of cancer arises, you usually talk about how a loved one can be a better support to the person going through cancer.
However necessary that conversation is, it’s also important to understand that cancer is an experience that affects everyone (tune in to more of this in our conversation with Psychologist, Dag Härdfeldt), whether you’ve been diagnosed or are a loved one. It affects us all, just in different ways.
In order to be a better support and continue enjoying life while experiencing cancer together, it’s important to take care of your own mental health and wellbeing. Our recent Psychologist Session with Hana Jamali covered the topic of the role of loved ones and cancer – here are some of her tips on how to manage your mental health as a loved one of someone with cancer.
Set aside time to spend with others outside of your closest circle
Something that Hana has witnessed is that when going through cancer, many people close themselves off to their networks or communities and only spend time with a few people, their closest circle. In one sense, that’s understandable because you want to pick the people you hold dearest to go through this difficult time with.
“I’ve seen some kind of cherry-picking in life where you maximize what you have. It’s completely understandable from an emotional perspective because you want to take care of the things you have around you, which is beautiful. But since our minds can’t really focus like that all the time and be aware and loving, we need perspective in order to be able to heighten those moments more,” she explains.
If you stop doing things that are giving you some kind of energy and perspective, you might also lose things that you value and hold dear. It’s important to continue having the choice to take part in activities or see people outside of your core responsibilities or circle. Variation and spending time with people and friends and doing activities that you don’t put highest on your list opens you up to more experiences and allows you to come with new energy, refreshed and able to focus and be close to the people that you do love.
Remember, you don’t need to only pick the most important or good things at the buffet to keep them. In fact, if you stop having options or the freedom to choose, the people you love most begin to feel more like a “must” and that you need to escape, and that decreases the amount of appreciation you have for them, and weakens your connection.
Creating some space in your life for other things and people that are important to you refills your cup and gives you a renewed sense of appreciation for your life and your loved ones.
Refill your energy by focusing on things that matter to you
This flows into setting aside time to work on things that matter to you. In general, a way of coping with hardship is to make sure you have more capacity and energy to be able to get through the hardship. Yet, what we tend to do during hardship is to isolate ourselves or to flee – that’s how our brain is wired. So what we need to do is to work against our brain, which also takes energy.
Try to take time for yourself to find out what matters to you, what you’ve stopped doing because you’re experiencing many emotions or cancer is simply taking up a lot of physical and mental space in your life. Then, speak with your loved one about triggers, how you feel, and what you need in order to be able to refill your energy and, in the end, be a better support. But how exactly does it make you a better support?
“During hardship we get really inflexible because we just want our lives to “work.” But when you put in more energy by doing things that matter to you, you tend to broaden your perspective and become more open. In that situation, you can handle hard conversations or conflict by actually listening and being able to change, without becoming too defensive,” Hana explains.
It’s harder to be flexible, open, and changeable if you don’t have that refill in your life.
Improve your mental health by taking care of your basic needs
We humans relieve stress in many physical ways, not just mental or emotional.
Also, getting the right amount of exercise reduces stress, bumps your production of endorphins (feel-good hormones) and improves your sleep, among many other benefits.
In the same way, eating nutritious foods and adopting a balanced diet sustains you, improves your mood and energy levels, and improves brain health. Of course, balance means just that – balance. Eat healthily and treat yourself. It takes two to tango.
Spending time in nature also does wonders for us, including lowering blood pressure and stress levels, enhancing your immune system, promoting calm and reducing feelings of isolation.
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and setting aside time for rest. Meditation and breathing exercises and making space for your spiritual growth plays a critical role in your overall health and especially your mental health when your loved one cancer.
Connect with others who know what it’s like to support someone going through cancer
Connecting with others who know what it’s like to experience cancer and support someone through it is very important. People need connection, the ability to share our stories and feel that we’ve been heard. Think of it like any other major experience in life – having kids, losing someone, moving in, separation, death. Having similar experiences is a way of being heard – seeing that connection in another person’s eyes and feeling that you belong. We need to feel that we belong. The War On Cancer app is a great place to meet loved ones who know how it feels to support someone through cancer and share stories, advice, and grow together. Or, if your loved one has been diagnosed with cancer and they meet a new friend who’s also going through cancer, try and connect with that person’s loved one.