Don't let cancer mess with your relationships

February 15, 2017 | by Samir Undevia, MD

A cancer diagnosis brings on life changes that are far-reaching—affecting both the person with cancer and everyone around them.

If you are the one with cancer, you may feel your friends and family can’t possibly understand what you’re going through. Your loved ones may want to help but not know how to help. All of these feelings can create distance and put a strain on your relationships.

When can you find ways to communicate, you’ll feel better and so will your loved ones. Read how one couple allowed cancer to make them stronger.

To give your friends and family some direction for how they can help you, be specific about how you’re feeling, and what you need or don’t need.

Here are some suggestions that can help you communicate better with the ones you love:

  • Put one person in charge of giving medical updates. Having to repeat information and answer the same questions can be tiring, time-consuming and stressful. Have one point person make necessary phone calls, send emails, post updates online and field questions. They can also assign tasks to family members who want to help.
  • Expect relationships to change. Many people have little experience with life-threatening illnesses. Some may not know what to say or how to act. Some of your friends and family members may not be able to offer the support that you expect. Try to remember that their reactions may reflect their past experiences and losses, not their feelings for you. Although some family members may distance themselves, others will surprise you with emotional and physical support throughout your illness.
  • Take the lead in talking. Some friends and family members may avoid talking with you because they don't know what to say or they may fear they might upset you. If you feel like talking about your cancer, bring up the subject and let them know that it's okay to talk about it. Reassure them that you don't expect answers and that you may only want them to listen and support you.
  • Let people help you. Your friends and family members will likely want to help you, but they might not know what you need or how to ask you. Be direct and detailed about your needs and prepare a list of concrete tasks that people can do for you (help with cooking, laundry, childcare, or just keeping you company at appointments, etc.).
  • Stay involved in social activities. Try to maintain social contact with friends and family as much as you can. Your friends might assume that you don’t want to be invited to events, so let them know if you are interested. In the meantime, let people know about your physical limitations.  Most friends and family members will be happy to plan quiet activities, such as going to the movies or fixing lunch at your house. Don't be afraid to cancel a date if you are physically or emotionally tired.

A lack of communication can lead to a feeling of isolation and frustration. Talking about your needs and feelings can reduce negativity and stress on your relationships. Be on the lookout for signs of a communication breakdown. These signs may include:

  • Frequent misunderstandings or disagreements
  • Use of criticism, sarcasm or name-calling
  • Fewer expressions of love and affection
  • Not wanting to ask for needed help or support
  • Feeling hurt by things a loved one says or does
  • Physical and emotional withdrawal by you or your loved one

If you are having a hard time connecting with your friends and family about your diagnosis, consider joining an in person or virtual support group or talk to a counselor or social worker.

What are some ways you communicate with your loved ones? Tell us in the below comments.

Get advice on how to face cancer as a couple.

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