By Greta Greer, MSW, LCSW
In my last blog, I provided general tips for communicating with someone diagnosed with cancer. In this blog, I talk about the added importance of good, open communication when you are caring for a loved one with cancer.
When it comes to being a cancer caregiver, I've found that caregivers often have the same questions and concerns as the person with cancer. Is he [am I] going to die? What if I can't handle this? Where's the money coming from for treatment? Is the cancer his [my] fault? I told her to go [I know I should have gone]...to the doctor... stop smoking... lose weight...get a colonoscopy, mammogram, Pap smear...use sunscreen! I'm so angry...scared...overwhelmed. Is cancer contagious? However, both those with cancer and those who care about them may not share these concerns with one another. Why is that?
You may be afraid that expressing your fears, saying the words out loud, can actually make them come true. You might try to shield your loved one from your feelings and concerns. However, failure to deal with them can affect good communication...and relationships.
The closer you are to someone with cancer, the greater the impact will be on you personally. Partners, immediate family members, and close friends typically are the ones who become caregivers and, thus, critical members of the "team." To be a good team member, you need to work on being a good communicator. Be observant of behavior, feelings, and physical symptoms in your loved one (and yourself). Reflect on them with your loved one. Help him share information with his health care providers and seek solutions when needed.
A cancer diagnosis typically creates a crisis. A period of crisis is also one of opportunity because during a crisis, you're more open to trying new ways of doing something. If you and your loved one have had poor communication in the past, now could be a good time to clear the air and take it in a more healthy direction. Sharing feelings constructively without blame or judgment, being willing to forgive and showing respect can go a long way. Get support from others or professional help when you find yourself losing patience with your loved one and saying things you regret.
And some of the same tips I mentioned in my other blog most certainly apply when you're taking care of your loved one:
- Keep communication simple, and let the person know you care about them and how important he or she is in your life.
- Offer your support
- Be a good listener.
- Watch for cues that can let you know they want to talk about their cancer. If they don't want to talk, respect it. (But continue to watch for and follow cues.)
- Do the same things together you used to before the cancer diagnosis if you can. Most people want to be treated the same as always, but check with them about how they feel and don't press to do anything they don't feel up to doing.
- Try to be OK with silence. Sometimes the person just needs a little time to focus his thoughts. Constantly talking because you are nervous can be irritating. A period of silence can allow someone the chance to express more thoughts and feelings.
- Touching, smiling, and warm looks are important ways to communicate also. Remember to use them.
- Try to maintain eye contact to demonstrate you are fully present and listening carefully.
For more tips, visit cancer.org/caregivers, or call our National Cancer Information Center at 1.800.227.2345 to speak with a trained cancer information specialist. And check out our online community of survivors and caregivers, the ACS Cancer Survivors Network, to connect with others who understand what you're facing and can help you through it.
Greer is director of survivorship programs for the American Cancer Society.