In the face of a cancer diagnosis, the right emotional support can both help you to cope and cultivate a more positive outlook on life. It's also crucial to assisting you to better adjust to the changes cancer brings to your life.
Forget about not wanting to burden your loved ones or thinking that since it’s your journey you need to do it on your own, because, according to the American Cancer Society, studies have shown that strong emotional support can make an incredibly positive difference to navigating a cancer journey.
“Looking back ten years,” says cancer survivor Samantha Brown, “if there is one thing I would change it would be to have communicated more with my care-givers who included my husband and my mother. There were good days and bad days and I always tried to hide the bad ones, but in hindsight I realise that my husband and mother had good and bad days too. Honest communication is needed to clear the air of fear, frustration, helplessness and concern. It will give you, as the cancer patient, an opportunity to tell others what you need, and you owe this to yourself- and to them.” Family and close friends will very likely feel completely powerless about how to help you, explains clinical psychologist Dr Colinda Linde. “Research has shown that a support system is one of the most important factors when it comes to coping with treatment, recovery and healing and you need to understand that asking your family and friends for help doesn’t mean that you are being a burden. In fact,” she continues, “Allowing them to support you emotionally and practically, as well as with information gathering, will actually help them too. It gives them micro-tasks to do, which staves off feelings of being immobilized or hysterical. They are also most likely in shock, so sharing your emotions and explaining how you feel will go a long way in helping them to help you too”.
Social support has been shown to play a key role in the coping process of cancer and cancer treatment, adds Dr Vanessa Marais, a clinical psychologist who specialises in cancer, oncology, depression and anxiety. “Recent studies have clearly demonstrated that when dealing with cancer, the presence of supportive interpersonal relationships has the potential to influence your well-being in both survivorship as well as improved mental health-related quality of life. It can also help you to stay focussed, to believe in yourself and to still feel accepted and appreciated by your loved ones”.
How to ask for help
For many people this is a toughie, Dr Linde concedes, “Especially if you’ve always regarded yourself as strong and fiercely independent. However asking for help is anything but a sign of weakness and asking for whatever you need - practical support, emotional support or simply for someone to hear what you’re saying - will make a huge difference in your cancer journey”. And never feel guilty about doing so, adds Dr Marais, “Because your friends and family want to help wherever they can. Guilt will only contribute to unnecessary feelings of depression, while assistance with practical chores, for example, will give you the space and time to heal. Remember that being a parent (especially a mother) of young children, means that you’re also a caregiver. This requires a lot of energy and attention that now has to compete with your time-consuming and energy-sapping cancer treatments. Asking for and accepting help is the ultimate way to balance things out at home between your children and the household chores, and the treatment and resting.”
Dr Marais offers the following tips on how to ask for help:
- Be brief, specific and honest. For example: ‘I am too tired/stressed out to make supper for the children/take them to or back from school/to ballet or soccer, can you help, please?’ Remember that this will also help your children to more or less carry on with their ‘normal’ pre-cancer activities
- Verbalise your feelings. For example: ‘I am terrified my children will have to grow up without a mother/father.’ Having a safe space to release these fears without judgment or advice being foisted on you can be really helpful
- Clearly explain what you need, for example, simply having someone to just be there and listen without trying to fix anything. ‘I just need to voice these fears out loud, without you/anyone freaking out, telling me to be positive, or trying to distract me’
For Sherene Grobler, a 52-year-old Witbank grandmother, the shock of hearing that tumours removed from her ovary, urethra and bladder were cancerous was cushioned by instant support from her family and church friends.
The deaths in three consecutive years of those Mickey lived with - her in-laws and then her husband, Mandla, followed by her own shock diagnosis of aggressive breast cancer would have been too much for most women.
With his diagnosis carrying a median survival rate of four years, Fareed Bruintjies, 47, accidentally bumped into a patient who'd survived the same cancer for twelve years, in the chemotherapy room.