Understanding what your relative or friend may be facing
To help you encourage your relative or friend to talk, it’s important to try to understand what they may be facing and the fears they may have. There are many different aspects of their illness that may cause fear.
When faced with a serious illness, it’s normal to be shocked and confused. This may be followed by an emotional reaction - common ones include fear, sadness, anger, bitterness, guilt or even shame. If the illness causes tiredness or pain, for example, that can make it harder to go about your everyday life as you normally would.
Even though many people with cancer can now be cured, your loved one may have a fear of dying. This fear may be like a shadow hanging over them – always there but never talked about. Even when people are cured, they often still worry that the cancer may come back. This fear may fade over time. However, it’s important to allow your loved one a chance to talk about it. By simply listening, you can be a support to them.
We all like to know what’s going to happen to us, as it helps us feel secure about our future. Having this feeling of certainty is a basic human need. People with cancer often feel that this has been taken away from them. Their future may feel very uncertain, and they may not know what is going to happen to them. They may talk about feeling out of control because they’re going through a very unpleasant situation.
You can help your relative or friend by simply acknowledging how difficult it must be to face this uncertainty. You can find out what they can still be in control of. It may be small things, such as when to go out for a walk, what to have for a meal or what to watch on television. Or it may be a big decision, such as whether to have chemotherapy or to ask for a second opinion about treatment.
You might find it helpful to watch this video about how Darren coped with uncertainty when he was diagnosed with cancer.
It’s not uncommon for a person with cancer to feel foolish because they don’t know exactly what’s going to happen to them. They may also feel silly if they don’t understand the medical terms used by the doctors or nurses.
Although they may avoid asking for explanations because their doctor or nurse appears to be very busy, it’s actually the duty of the medical team to clearly explain things. If the doctor or nurse was rushed on the day, this could have affected how clearly they said things. You can support your relative or friend by helping them ask questions to get the answers they need.
If your relative or friend still doesn’t understand after the doctors or nurses try to explain things, they can contact our cancer support specialists, who are able to give information to help people understand more about their specific situation. There are also other cancer support organisations who they could contact.
Physical symptoms such as pain, sickness or breathlessness may also cause distress. It’s important to let the doctors or nurses know about these symptoms because there are often effective ways of relieving them. If your relative or friend is afraid to talk about their symptoms or feels they should put up with them, you can act as an advocate and speak on their behalf, with their permission, to the medical staff.
Visible signs of treatment or disease
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It can be a shock if you visit someone in hospital and find them looking unwell. Seeing them attached to various pieces of medical equipment can be distressing. Remember to keep your attention on your relative or friend. They’re likely to notice if you stare at some piece of medical equipment or if you look away because you find it difficult to look at dressings, drips or other tubes. If seeing medical equipment, such as drips or tubes, is likely to make you anxious, you may want to ask the hospital staff what to expect before you visit.
Hair loss is a common side effect of cancer treatment. It can be a big concern for many people. If your relative or friend is likely to lose their hair because of treatment, they may want to talk about how they feel and what to do. You can support them in their decision to wear a wig, scarf, bandana, hat or even nothing at all. If they want help choosing one of these, you can help with this too.
When a person is ill they may feel cut off from the rest of society and their usual friends. This may be because family and friends feel awkward about not knowing what to say or do, so they find it difficult to visit or get in touch. You can help your loved one feel cared for and supported by contacting them, whether through a visit, phone call, card, letter or email. You may want to encourage other family members and friends to do the same.
All of these fears and concerns are normal and natural, and it can really help to have someone to talk to about them. Just being there and listening can be so important to your relative or friend.
Advice from other carers
You can read other carers' advice about understanding what the person with cancer is facing in our booklet Hello, and how are you? [PDF, 914 kb] - a guide written by carers, for carers.