- Feelings can be overwhelming: You’ll not only be coming to terms with your own feelings but also dealing with the feelings of other family members and how they express these outwardly. It’s understandable for this to feel daunting at times.
- The family dynamic may change: Your loved one with cancer might not be able to do certain things they did before their diagnosis and other family members, including yourself, may find that priorities and responsibilities shift.
- Give yourself and others grace: Be patient with yourself and other family members. A cancer diagnosis in the family is a difficult and emotional experience that everyone will be dealing with in their own way; it will take time, understanding and communication to come to terms with changes.
Finding out a loved one has cancer can be devastating. You can expect to feel sad or angry, and might be concerned about what it means for their future. It’s also natural to find yourself worrying about how their diagnosis will impact your relationship, as well as wider family life.
This guide offers information and guidance around coping with cancer in the family. We share how cancer can affect the family dynamic, the emotional effect of diagnosis and treatment, and where you can get support.
How to deal with the cancer diagnosis of a loved one
Dealing with a family member who has cancer is not easy. There are no set rules for how to handle the situation. This will very much depend on your individual living circumstances, how close you are, and the type and stage of cancer.
Two essential factors are to listen to one another and to be empathetic. The person who has received the diagnosis has a lot to process, as does the rest of the family. It’s important to talk about what is happening by discussing how you feel. Ask questions while respecting each other’s privacy and boundaries.
Coping with your emotions
Finding out a family member has cancer can evoke a huge range of emotions and processing these can certainly feel overwhelming at times. Your first reaction may be grief or fear. However, you may find that over time, these emotions give way to anger, resentment or even guilt.
If you are struggling to cope with your emotions, you aren’t alone: talking about how you feel can help. Speaking to your family, including your loved one who has cancer, may help you feel less alone in your experience. You could also look for a support group or online forum where you can chat with people who have had similar experiences.
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you feel like you need it or you aren’t coping with your emotions. Book an appointment with your GP to discuss what mental health services are available or find a private counsellor that specialises in helping those living with or supporting someone with cancer.
Your loved one may need support as they navigate their diagnosis and cancer treatment. But remember you will likely need some help too. The type and level of support is likely to depend on the circumstances. Supporting a parent with cancer when you don’t live in the same household will be different to supporting an adult child who lives at home.
If you are caring for someone with cancer while working it might be helpful to have a conversation with your employer. Telling your employer someone you love has cancer may instigate some valuable emotional and practical support from colleagues and management. You might be able to adopt a flexible working pattern, or be temporarily relieved of some of your work duties. This will allow you to have more time to focus on things at home.
Reach out to friends and extended family for practical support. They can provide childcare while you attend appointments with your family member or simply listen while you talk through your experience. Many organisations and charities also offer support for carers.
How does cancer impact family relationships?
A cancer diagnosis can change family dynamics in a multitude of ways. There will likely be some changes that everyone will need time to get accustomed to.
Schedules and responsibilities
Following a diagnosis, someone living with cancer is likely to face frequent hospital appointments for tests, treatments and follow-ups. They may experience fatigue and be unable to maintain the same pace of life as before.
It’s common for those undergoing treatment to stop working for a while or to no longer have the energy for socialising. They may also need to relinquish some of their family responsibilities. For example, they might not feel well enough to prepare evening meals or do the school run. If you take on a carer role for your family member, some of the errands and tasks that they used to do might become your responsibility, leaving you with less free time.
The family dynamic
When a family member is diagnosed with cancer, it can cause significant shifts in the family dynamic that will likely take some getting used to.
For example, if you are supporting a spouse with cancer, you may find that they need help to do the things they used to do on their own, like bathe or move about the house. If it’s an adult child that has received a diagnosis, they may need support that you haven’t had to give as a parent for a while, including financial and practical assistance.
These situations, as well as many others, can alter the ways that you relate to each other. While these shifts can be profound, they may be temporary, and are not necessarily negative. You might find that supporting a family member in this way brings you closer, and that this endures after their treatment.
Emotional effects of cancer on the family
It’s inevitable that you and your family members will need to navigate some difficult emotions as you cope with a cancer diagnosis and the changes that might occur as a result. Heightened emotions can easily trigger arguments and the stress of the situation can lead to outbursts. Individuals may become withdrawn as they process their internal thoughts, or their behaviour may change.
On the other hand, you might see a positive side to family members that you haven’t seen before. Individuals’ caring sides may come to the forefront. You may therefore become close to family members that you may have had strained relationships with before.
How you can support your loved one
After a diagnosis, and as family dynamics change, your loved one may need support both emotionally and physically. The type of support they need will depend on things such as their personality and how many people they have to help them. Ask them if you want to help but aren’t sure how best to do so.
If your loved one lives alone, they might love some company throughout the week. Or if they are feeling anxious, they might value someone to go to their appointments with them. They may also value help with everyday things such as housework or cooking. Or need someone to act as a family point of contact to keep others informed about what’s going on.
While supporting a family member with cancer, it’s important to recognise your limitations and look after your wellbeing, too. If you stretch yourself too thinly and don’t give yourself any time to rest or do things you enjoy, you may end up with carer burnout.
You can also seek help for your loved one and yourself from others. Family and friends may be able to give their time. Whilst organisations such as Macmillian and Maggie’s can provide information and advice on support that you can access.
We offer a range of support types such as psychotherapy, life coaching and specialist cancer nursing. Each can help you and your family deal with a cancer diagnosis. Find out more about how Perci Health can help those living with cancer, living beyond cancer and supporting someone with cancer.