Families come in various shapes and sizes. For some, intimate partners and children may serve as a family, while for others, extended family and close friends may be considered primary sources of support. Regardless of whom you consider to be your family, it’s important to recognize that cancer is an illness that often affects your immediate family circle, and in different ways. Given the demands of cancer treatment, you may notice a shift in roles and responsibilities within your family.
Your Role Within the Family
As you adjust to coping with cancer, you may feel a sense of vulnerability and ask for support from others. With cancer and the demands of treatment, it is natural to turn to those whom you feel like you can count on the most, to help you get through treatment and to ensure that other members of the household are properly cared for.
Asking for help can be tough as it may symbolize a loss of control and sense of independence. It can feel awkward to ask for help, especially from those for whom you’ve served in a caregiving capacity in the past. Think about your role as an earner, childcare provider, and household manager and how those roles have changed since your diagnosis. How does this shift impact the roles and responsibilities of other family members? Have an ongoing conversation with your loved ones about the potential changes in roles and responsibilities as you and your family adapt to coping with cancer.
The role of the caregiver, or the main support person in your life, cannot be underestimated. Caregivers may include a close friend, an intimate partner, an extended family member, or an adult child generally who assumes a primary caregiving role during cancer treatment. Caregivers engage in various meaningful roles from cooking meals and providing transportation to medical appointments to offering emotional and spiritual support.
The commitment that comes along with caring for a loved one living with cancer is an expression of deep love and can also lead to feelings of exhaustion, helplessness, sadness, and anger – feelings that can be experienced by both the person living with cancer and the caregiver. It is natural for both the caregiver and the person with cancer to be concerned about the overall well-being of each other. Often, neither will voice their concerns out of fear of feeling like a burden to the other person.
Honest communication between you and your caregiver about feelings, concerns, and expectations promotes a healthy adjustment to cancer. Also, collaborating with a mental health therapist or participating in a support group with others who have been through a similar experience can be supportive resources for caregivers.
Cancer can be challenging for couples. The intensity of the cancer experience can potentially exacerbate pre-existing challenges for couples or strengthen their relationship’s foundational bond. As you navigate cancer treatment, you will likely be faced with decisions that can impact future plans and goals. Perhaps, you are newly married and contemplating having children when cancer comes into your life, or cancer presents at a point when you and your spouse were planning to retire.
Cancer can be a financial or emotional stressor for couples. There may be pressure on your spouse to earn more if you must take time off from work during treatment. Perhaps your spouse needs to take a more active role in childcare-related tasks as you recover from treatment. This shift in roles and responsibilities can lead to new feelings between you and your partner.
As you contemplate strategies to address possible challenges, remain open to how cancer may strengthen your bond as a couple. Perhaps you have come to appreciate your partner in new ways. Consider how you have faced challenges in the past as a couple. What has helped you cope with difficulty in those cases? You and your partner may have different coping styles so be respectful of each other’s preferences if they are not harmful to anyone. Maintaining an open and honest dialogue with each other can help adjust to cancer together.
If you are a parent/caregiver of a child, you may be concerned about your child’s emotional and physical adjustment to your cancer. Depending on the age and maturity level of your child(ren), consider what information to share with them about your diagnosis. A few tips:
- No matter their age, let your child(ren) know that they have no responsibility for you having cancer.
- Promote a sense of stability by maintaining structure and consistency in a child’s day-to-day routine. Inform your child of any changes to their daily schedule or responsibilities around the home.
- Create a comfortable and safe environment for children to be able to express their feelings and thoughts.
- Encourage expression – through art, music, talking, and play to share emotions.
- Inform your child’s school about your diagnosis, especially if there are any changes to their academic performance or in their behavior.
Strategies for Adaptive Family Coping
Below are some suggestions for how to adjust and cope with cancer as a family:
- Promote healthy communication: Open, honest, and respectful communication is essential to navigating the emotional challenges of cancer. Talking and expressing emotions help families process the impact of cancer as well as promote a sense of connection. Make a commitment to schedule meetings as a family to discuss how everyone is coping with the cancer experience.
- Change the “cancer” channel: While your life may feel consumed by cancer, it can be helpful to take breaks from thinking and talking about cancer. Schedule dedicated time to participate in fun, pleasurable family activities such as cooking dinner and watching a movie.
- Care for the caregiver: Caregivers can often seem to suffer in silence from fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Access to supportive resources including mental health support, caregiver-specific support groups, and in some instances, respite care, can help promote a healthy quality of life for caregivers.
- Talk with an Iris mental health therapist: therapists have expertise in supporting patients and families impacted by cancer. They can help with communication strategies and offer tools for staying emotionally connected to your loved ones.
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Reviewed by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board
This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.