As many issues surface for patients, understanding common relationship challenges and potential solutions offers helpful information to enhance awareness and strengthen meaningful connections. Dealing with cancer in relationships requires self-awareness, self-compassion, and courage.
Start the Conversation
Sometimes people with cancer, their family, and friends do not know how to communicate about cancer. People with cancer can start the conversation themselves. Let people know what you want to talk about, whether or not you welcome questions that moment or day, or if you do not wish to talk about anything related to cancer at that time.
Cancer caregivers, including family and friends, may also thoughtfully engage the topic of cancer. Hopefully cancer caregivers give attention to your verbal, emotional, and physical cues to help place you at the center of the conversation and yourself. Offering presence and responding to the cues enhances the quality of connection and exchange in relationships.
Intense emotions such as fear may be present in conversations about the spectrum of cancer related issues. Sometimes it is difficult to identify thoughts and feelings. Tensions can mount in the chaos of cancer and from feeling out of control. Challenges in communication dynamics before cancer may increase in the stress of cancer. Emotionally charged conversations about complex health and life issues are best negotiated slowly and with tenderness.
Recognize Changing Responsibilities and Roles
People affected by cancer may need assistance related to their regular responsibilities. Sometimes they cannot do certain tasks due to the disease and its treatments. Along with or separate from physical help, they might require support for their mental, emotional, spiritual, social, and environmental needs. Changing responsibilities and roles in families and friendships due to cancer may occur for the short or long term.
Recognizing responsibilities and roles before cancer provides clues into what feels comfortable and uncomfortable for patients. For example, people that were independent before cancer may be challenged to request and/or receive help. Issues evolve based on the stage of the cancer journey and each person. After treatments, significant others might expect their beloved dealing with cancer to resume their responsibilities and roles. Or maybe caregivers want to continue offering support when their loved one is ready to begin former routines.
Negotiating responsibilities and roles in relationships can feel confusing and awkward. Learning how to make those transitions can be liberating. Tune into what feels best for you and know that the process can be fluid. Developing awareness about how you are feeling and your needs is a strong first step.
Communicate your Reality
Be honest about what you can and cannot do. Tell your loved ones what to expect from you. Recognize that energy levels and capabilities ebb and flow through the cancer experience.
Ask For What You Need
People with cancer have specific needs related to their body, mind, and spirit, including social and environmental health. Identify what you need. Ponder how and where your needs can be met. Pursue those directions. Know you are worthy.
Consider Different Types of Support
Support in relationships can come from a group, one other person, and yourself. Feel into and investigate what meets your needs. Some possibilities include the following.
- Support from a group—support groups, meditation gatherings, art classes, exercise teams, religious or spiritual communities, dance group or class
- Support from one other person—shared meal or cup of tea, movie, playful excursion, walk, professional assistance
- Support from yourself—quiet day or evening, cup of tea, journaling, reading, favorite TV show, movie, meditation, choosing to have a massage, personal retreat, self-inquiry, spiritual connection, a bath
Loved ones might ask what they can do to help. Family and friends can do things for you (run errands, make food, join you for appointments, take you to the movies) and be with you (listen to how you feel, share a cup of tea, hold your hand).
Recognize Patterns of Withdrawal
Both patients and loved ones may initiate withdrawal.
People with cancer might withdraw from loved ones. Some people with cancer need space to reflect on and make sense of their situation. Patients may also withdraw when engaging deep healing work. Emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness influence how people with cancer may or may not connect with family and friends. Behavioral tendencies before cancer offer insights about reasons for withdrawal. Personal and relationship issues present before cancer may become pronounced through the cancer experience. Track how you are feeling to learn more about your patterns. Give yourself permission to do what feels right. Consider talking with loved ones about withdrawal.
Sometimes family members or friends step back and even avoid people dealing with cancer. This happens for many reasons. The person might not know what to say. They might be worried about saying the wrong thing. They might not know how to react. They might not know how to offer support. They might be really scared. They might feel out of control.
Recognize patterns of withdrawal. Notice if people pull away occasionally or frequently. Decide if you want to discuss withdrawal with people you care about.
Maintain Worthwhile Connections
Recognize the relationships that matter. Do not focus on repairing relationships that were not strong to begin with. Invest your time and energy in the people that truly nurture and love you.
Negotiate Not So Helpful Help
Sometimes loved ones insist on helping when no assistance is needed or appropriate. Their motivation might be rooted in trying to express love without knowing how to convey it in the most supportive way, a sense of feeling out of control, and/or related to their own needs. Express what does and does not work for you. Be direct.
Draw Boundaries in Conversations about Cancer
Some people ask a lot of questions. Sometimes the types and amount of questions feel uncomfortable. People with cancer and their loved ones may experience this. If you can, decide ahead how you want to reply to certain inquiries. Tell people when you do not want to respond. Be honest. You can also avoid answering questions by changing the subject, redirecting the conversation, or taking a bathroom break.
For more information, explore Profound Emotional Support to Cancer Patients: Tips for Cancer Patients and Caregivers, as well as various Mind and Spirit articles, practices, tips, tools, and resources.
Psychological and psychosocial support can help improve quality of life and cancer survival.