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The Emotional Side of Cancer

Posted: Saturday, October 2011

Unless you’ve been there, it’s difficult to fathom being told ‘you have cancer.’ And, cancer doesn’t just affect the patient. It’s also felt by family and friends. Besides physically battling the disease, patients and their loved ones must deal with the emotional side of cancer. How can you help yourself, or help someone else? 

Patients should bring a family member or trusted friend to all medical appointments.  When emotions are running high, it can be difficult for patients to absorb what the physician is saying.

And, it’s important for the physician to see the patient’s reactions when sharing news and explaining treatments to determine how much detail they understand and want to hear. Family members should be careful not to ask questions in front of the patient.  If the patient hasn’t already asked their question, it may not be fair for someone else to ask.  Instead, just give them a hug or a touch on the shoulder. 

Choose a physician you trust. Frequently, patients are given several treatment options, and must make a decision.  With the broad range of treatments available today, patients need to trust in the physician who is treating them, or they should find another one. 

Decide who to tell, what to tell and how much after being diagnosed.  Patients may think they want privacy, but that can backfire.  Allow family and friends to help.  I recommend that children be told. If you don’t tell them, they’ll know something is wrong or they may find out from someone else.  Simple answers may be all they need – something like, ‘I have an illness.  I may have to take some medications and might lose my hair.’ 

Share your feelings. Some patients keep a journal to write down their feelings, appointments and physician questions.  Patients diagnosed with cancer need someone who will just listen – not offer advice.  And, support is important.  It can come from a social worker, a support group or someone who has had the same type of cancer.  Their journey may have been different, but that person can provide hope and support. Caregivers’ need support, too.  Their feelings should not be overlooked.

Update those who care.  Patients will sometimes have a family member act as a ‘spokesperson’ to share the latest news with concerned friends by posting updates on Facebook or sending e-mails.  Let people know it’s okay to call or e-mail, but to be understanding if the patient is too tired or ill to talk or respond at that time. 

Enjoy normal activities.  While cancer patients want people to care, they don’t always want to talk about their cancer. They want to enjoy as many activities and hobbies as they can.  Most simply want to be treated normal, not as someone who is ill.

Cancer patients often find comfort knowing they’re not alone. There are many external resources available to patients and caregivers, including faith-based groups and organizations, such as The Wellness Community and the American Cancer Society.

Deborah Wienski, medical oncologist at Missouri Baptist Cancer Center, is board-certified in internal medicine and oncology. For referral to a physician on-staff at Missouri Baptist Medical Center, call 314-996-LIFE.

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