This past winter my husband was diagnosed with colon cancer — and it filled me with a sense of dread and anxiety that I had never experienced before. It also taught me that a cancer diagnosis not only instills fear and uncertainty in the patient, but also in the patient’s loved ones for whom the experience can be harrowing.
Which is why it’s important that those loved ones — whether they’re caregivers, partners or close friends — also have the support and resources to emotionally handle the experience. Because believe me, I now understand how rough it can be. Hopefully, this article will provide some tips on moving forward and making your own well-being a priority.
Not surprisingly, many people who have been diagnosed with cancer experience mental health issues like anxiety and depression. They often have trouble sleeping and can feel everything from panic to hopelessness to overwhelming anxiety about recurrence. All of which makes perfect sense. Caregivers often play a critical role in helping people navigate through their cancer treatment and those feelings.
“Post-traumatic stress symptoms can occur following a life-threatening diagnosis like cancer. A person can sometimes begin to expect the worst after being given a cancer diagnosis and other ‘bad news,’” explains Dr. Jesse Fann, medical director for the Department of Psychosocial Oncology at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.
This can also be true for their loved ones, which is how I felt after my husband’s diagnosis. Even though colon cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States (which is why I encourage anyone experiencing symptoms to please get checked), I somehow still felt safe that it couldn’t, or at least probably wouldn’t, happen to my family. And suddenly after the news, anything was possible, especially the bad, terrifying and scary stuff. And though it was actually happening to him, I found myself regularly overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness and fear that felt impossible to shake.
So, what about family and friends?
And it turns out, I’m not alone. According to Fann, research has shown that caregivers of people with cancer often experience significant distress, with some studies even suggesting that the rates may equal or even exceed those of the patients themselves.
“Untreated emotional distress can lead to depression, prolonged grief, spiritual distress, feelings of isolation, hopelessness and abandonment, and even health consequences such as heart disease,” explains Fann.
In addition to the emotional stress, the financial burden on the family of a cancer patient can be substantial even with health insurance. According to one survey from the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), over half of the patients surveyed had cancer-related medical debt, and more than half of those people reported having their debt go into collections — which negatively affected their credit.
These stressors are just some of the reasons why the loved ones of those dealing with cancer need to focus on their own mental health as well.
Some ways to cope
Need some help figuring out your next steps for coping? The key is: you. You need to make sure to take care of yourself, which includes a healthy diet, plenty of sleep and exercise, plus making time for activities you love and for friends who can help lift your spirits. I know that this can seem like a mammoth task when you have so much “big” stuff going on in your life, which is why even taking the smallest step is useful. Don’t have the time or funds for an actual massage to decompress? Even just taking five minutes to do meditative breathing exercises can have a positive impact on your mental state. After all, if your head is in a good space, then you’ll be able to take better care of your loved one.
That also means you should ask for help from family, friends or respite services (the social worker working with the medical team can help connect you to these resources). Be sure to take breaks from your caregiving role and make the time and space for yourself. Just because you’ve been swept up into a new world of blood tests, scans and pills doesn’t mean you can’t still grab a coffee with friends or enjoy the cheesy horror flicks that you’ve always loved. Make sure you continue being you.
During the most stressful times right after my husband’s diagnosis, I found comfort in taking long drives by myself, listening to music and trying to clear my mind. I also reached out to an old friend who I knew had just gone through the colorectal cancer ringer. Though I hadn’t spoken to him in ages, having someone who intimately understood mine (and my husband’s) struggles and fears, made a world of difference when I needed to vent, cry or ask questions.
And of course, “If you find that anxiety, depression, or alcohol or substance use are increasing and impairing your everyday functioning, or if you are having thoughts of hopelessness or suicide, then you should immediately seek help from a mental health professional,” Fann emphasizes.
Connecting with others is essential
It’s important to note how essential support people are for those dealing with a loved one’s cancer diagnosis. Maybe the people around you are feeling unsure about how to make you feel better — in which case you can point them to the following suggestions from Fann:
- Check in often and be a good listener.
- Be present and make it clear that you are available to help (and mean it).
- Go ahead and jump in to help in some way — you don’t even need to wait for them to ask. When I had one friend send over a pizza (for my kids) and a bottle of wine (for me) out of nowhere, it really did make a difference.
- Watch closely for signs that they need help (lack of sleep, exhaustion, increased alcohol use, etc.).
- Try to keep them engaged in their own life and interests — encourage them to stay connected to friends and family.
- Call, email, zoom, text, send cards or visit them in person. Just let them know you’re thinking of them.
- In my experience, I’ve found that the best support has been a kind and sympathetic ear. Knowing that someone will pick up the phone, no matter the time, and simply listen, has made the scary times seem more manageable.
Resources and lifelines
Looking for more resources? The following are some helpful support groups and websites, recommended by Fann, that can help you navigate this journey:
Support groups, many of which can be accessed remotely:
- American Cancer Society
- National Cancer Institute
- Cancer Support Community
- Caregiver Action Network or call 855-227-3640
Basically, I just want you to know that you are seen. Loving someone who has cancer is not an easy road, but it also isn’t one that you have to go down alone. Reach out for help, tell people what you need and know that there are resources available to support you along the way.