Guest Blog | Coping with Stress & Anxiety when Someone Close to you is Diagnosed with Cancer
This Guest Blog has been written by Karin Sieger, a psychotherapist and cancer counsellor, who specialises in life changes and transitions that many of us struggle with. Karin tackles the difficult subject of coping with the stress and anxiety that you may be feeling if someone close to you has been diagnosed with cancer. It is such an informative blog and is exactly the sort of advice I wish I'd, had when Mum was poorly. So we do hope it will be of some comfort and support to you.
Dealing with stress and anxiety is something we all experience in our lives. It is normal and serves a purpose. However, if not kept in proportion both can work against us, make us feel unwell and cause mental and physical discomforts and illness.
Life changing events like a cancer diagnosis cause stress and anxiety - not just for the patient but also for those close to them.
In this piece I shall focus on offering some support for family and friends. If this is you, then you may recognise yourself in some of what I say. However, because we are all individuals and the cancer experience can be very individual, not everything applies to everybody all of the time.
While I have been treated for cancer twice before, I have also accompanied relatives and friends through their own life with and in some cases death from cancer. Because they were all individuals with their own needs, views on life, personalities and different closeness to me - each time was different for me. And that is one of the key messages to take away:
Just because you feel and respond differently to what others feel or do, that does not make you and your experiences invalid.
We all have to find our own path of making sense and dealing with difficult truths in life.
There isn’t always a clear line or silver bullet.
Here are seven areas to know about:
1. The way a cancer diagnosis can make you feel and what to do
A cancer diagnosis is often likened to an earthquake, something that causes utter destruction. Nothing seems like what it was before. We are left feeling helpless, overwhelmed with uncertainty, unclear about what to do for the best. We may feel like having lost control. All that matters now is decided on and done by strangers, medical teams etc.
People we love or feel close to and may have seemed invincible before now appear (at times very rapidly) vulnerable and physically weak. This also means we are not as invincible as we may like to think.
The person with cancer will have to find their own way of making sense and coping. Sometimes, due to age or nature of the illness and treatment, this is not easy for them and support is needed.
In short, a cancer diagnosis can throw us into a crisis and such moments in our lives cause stress and anxiety.
Personally, I think one of the most human and understandable responses can also be one of the most unhelpful responses: pretending it is not happening and piling the pressure on top of everything else that might be going on for us at the time.
I know, it is not always easy to delegate, find extra time in our days, take a break etc. But the fact is, coping well with such events in our lives takes mental, emotional and physical energy. We need to make space for that and try and rearrange and reprioritise our lives where we can.
To be of use to others we need to look after ourselves.
It is not uncommon for relatives and friends to become unwell themselves, because the stress and anxiety can weaken our immune system. We may also think that we are less deserving, or our problems are less important or urgent than those of the person with cancer. Keeping an eye on our sleep, diet and maintaining gentle exercise is essential. Long term release of stress hormones can also impact our nervous system. If we worry about something unusual going on with our bodies and minds, then we need to seek assistance.
2. How can you make a positive difference?
“How on earth can I look after myself, when someone with cancer needs me?” I hear you ask? That brings me to my second point.
Try not to make assumptions what (especially adult) cancer patients need or don’t need from you. While we should not always accept every “I am alright” at face value, neither should we assume that everything rests on our shoulders, that we have to have all the answers and solve everything. Because we can’t. And often we shouldn’t either.
Because keeping busy and fixing things can be our way of not accepting the truth that we can’t control everything. And the risk is that it makes it harder for the cancer patient to take responsibility and figure out for themselves that they need to do.
Being cared for too much can also make people with cancer feel incapable of doing things for themselves and we (I include myself in this) may lose confidence. A lot of illnesses and treatments can make us lose confidence and self worth. Those around us can add to that, unwittingly.
Ask and check what the other person really needs and when.
Be honest with yourself - what you can and should take on and what is best left to others?
Let the other person know that you are there for them, ready to face the difficulties and fears, even if you do not have all the answers and can’t protect them from all the pain and uncertainties.
Be clear about when YOU need help, because there is no shame in that. You are not doing anything wrong or failing!
3. What if you resent what is happening?
Being there for another leads me to another, somewhat sensitive, topic. Not every relative or friend wants 'to be there' for the person with cancer. They may feel obliged to be there and offer support. But deep down it might be hard. Pretending can lead to frustration, irritation, resentment and anger. All of that is another source of stress and anxiety.
What’s going on?
It is not uncommon for relatives and friends to feel they "did not sign up for this". Because the cancer diagnosis of another may impact their own lives in so many ways. If it is a partner or even a child, then thoughts and feelings like “I had hoped for a different life … I/we had hopes, dreams, ambitions … etc” are not uncommon.
You may recognise some of this. If this is you, then you may be struggling (or not). If this is someone else you know, then you may feel angry at them for feeling this way or you may feel more charitable and empathic.
Undoubtedly, these are difficult issues we need figure out. Talking to someone independent can help with that.
4. The people who disappoint
Why do some people want to do a runner - literally, and why do others start minimising their contact or support for people with cancer?
Some find it hard to face up to difficulties and pain they'd rather not deal with. And without wanting to sound unkind, others just cannot be bothered. The person with cancer and others around them are entitled to the conclusions they draw from that.
Cancer can make us feel alone and lonely - whether we are the person with cancer, a relative or friend.
5. Illnesses like cancer are also about mortality and death
Even if the person with cancer does not die of the illness, our minds go to that place. We may have experienced it before in our family, friendship circle or in our own body. Our lives have lost their carefreeness; everything can feel so heavy and serious.
Things have changed and may never be the same again. That in itself is an experience of grief. We may feel bereft without realising it, even if the person with cancer does not die.
Acknowledging our mortality, the possibility of loss of life from illness or treatment of illness and the change to our lives, all that is important.
At least acknowledging that it is hard to talk about (for some) is better than denying the existence of such feelings and fears. Pinned up worries can contribute to the growth of stress and anxiety.
Keeping a sense of gratitude and inner peace during times of adversity can be extremely hard and even feel uncaring, flippant and insensitive.
It is not easy to cope with thoughts and fears of mortality, while getting on with life. It can be even harder to remain hopeful.
But hope is not just about hoping that death will not occur. Hope can also be about hoping that we will cope well with whatever comes our way - whether we like it or not.
Allowing difficult things to happen, not shying away from that truth we don’t have much control over some things - that can be a great source of strength.
6. A crisis of belief and trust
Apart from facing up to mortality, cancer can also cause a crisis of belief for those who are religious, a crisis in relationships, social and financial stress, falling out within families, when different people have different views about what should or should not be done etc.
The beliefs and values in which we have trusted, the people who we thought would be there for us, all this can be thrown into an existential crisis. It can become an intense time of introspection.
7. The issue of time
There are so many reasons for stress and anxiety, when someone close to you is diagnosed with cancer. And the after effects can stay for years to come, because a lot of what we go through is intense, can be deeply personal and shake our foundations. Nothing is what it was.
Even if the person with cancer lives on well, we may have experienced and witnessed difficult moments, which we cannot just switch off from our memories.
It is not uncommon for people (former patients, relatives or friends) to develop health anxieties, expecting the worst to happen and anticipating death.
Even if the person with cancer goes into remission, the knowledge of what has happened and can happen again can cause ongoing anxiety, sadness, hopelessness and therefore also helplessness and anger.
When cancer cannot be cured but is treatable, ongoing treatment makes cancer a different permanent reality - literally. Then there may be fears about how long cancer will respond to treatment, will it spread, how can the person with cancer cope, how can you (the relative or friend) cope?
And what if cancer is terminal, if there is limited time?
Clearly these are deep topics which deserve a more in-depth exploration, than what I can offer in this article.
Indeed, a lot of what is referred to here if experienced and discussed through the eyes of the person with cancer may open up a whole different range of topics and opinions.
Working things through and processing it all is essential for our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
Find ways that feel right for you.
Therapy or counselling is one way; alternative therapies to support your body and mind have been validated for centuries; spending time outdoors, meditating, breath work and so much more can help calm our nervous system.
Finding ways of staying calm during a crisis and de-stressing ourselves afterwards, is what is called for.
Karin Sieger is a UK-based psychotherapist and cancer counsellor who offers support online across the UK and beyond. She has been treated for breast cancer twice, writes and talks a lot on this topic. For more information visit KarinSieger.com and check out her audio recordings on CancerAndYou.