Receiving news as serious as the illness of a family member is often an event with enormous destabilizing potential. This fact becomes even worse if we talk about cancer, since this disease carries with it an enormous stigma as it is socially considered a fatal condition, although in practice it is not always the case.
Many people, once the initial shock of the news has passed, then to ask themselves if there is something they can do for their family member, but many times the question arises of how a person can be helped in this situation at all.

As we discussed earlier in posts on this topic, talking about cancer in general is misleading, since this disease, depending on the location, size and health status of the patient can be as harmless as to have practically no complications (in cases of rapid detection and intervention), or as terminal as being inoperable and deadly.

In any case, many of the things we can do for people who suffer from this disease are the same regardless of the degree of severity of their condition, so we are going to make certain points and then mention special cases.

1) Understand what kind of help our family member needs: We all have a way in which we like to be comforted, some people need physical contact, it calms them and makes them feel better, but other don’t stand it and may feel uncomfortable with it. In the same way, there are people who appreciate regular interaction and being checked on to see how they are doing, and there are those who prefer to have their own space and time alone to manage the wave of emotions that comes with this type of news. Since we cannot read the minds of the people we live with, there is a little trick that almost always works: Ask!
Giving space to our familiar, and asking questions like: “is there anything I can do to help you?”, “Would you rather we talk about this often, or do you think it would be better for you to deal with this on your own?” “Would it make you feel better if we made plans more often?” are great ways to empower the person we speak to. We allow them to manage the interactions they have in the way that is easiest for them, and we also have the certainty that we are helping.

2) Be attentive to intense emotional reactions: It is very normal that after receiving news of this caliber, emotions can overtake the person who listens to them. The emotions that someone may feel can be really varied; sadness, shame, guilt for not having acted before, anxiety, fear, anger and many more. Sharing the burden of these emotions (always at the pace the affected person sets, as mentioned before) always makes them easier to manage. In addition, normalizing these types of emotional reactions and accompanying the person who suffers them is never a bad option.

3) Pay attention to distorted thoughts: When we suffer waves of intense negative emotions, they often bias our way of thinking and we can end up having thoughts that are somewhat dramatic, illogical and somewhat extreme. It is not uncommon to meet people who think that what happens to them is a punishment for something they did wrong, that their life no longer has meaning, or that others cannot help them at all. Helping patients eliminate these thoughts is the job of a psychologist, but sometimes simply being aware that they exist and are negatively affecting us helps reduce the effect they have on us.

In some cases, unfortunately, cancer is terminal, and although the previously mentioned shows of support are just as important, these cases have a particularities to them.

It is worth mentioning that in the face of death many times people re-evaluate their life and consider how it has gone, what they could have done differently, etc. This is a natural and desirable process, in which the accompaniment of a professional will always help.

Even so, there is an element that usually gives meaning to the last moments of the life of a person in the terminal phase, and it is the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones. Many people who die naturally do not have the opportunity to say goodbye to family and friends, and sometimes this is something that takes its toll to the point of complicating the grief of those close to them. However, expressing emotions, desires and affections while still can help both the sick and their families to move on and face the end in a less painful way.
There are always last wishes and actions to take, and it is at these times that patients have the option to do so.

Cancer is an increasingly studied and understood disease, and there are already many professionals in both oncology and mental health (psycho-oncology) who dedicate their lives to helping people who suffer from it. Accompaniment in these moments by qualified personnel can always be a relief that allows to lighten the burden of such a difficult moment for those who need it.

Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Fernando Pérez-Ullivarri
Psychologist
Adults and adolescents
Languages: English and Spanish
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