Support for People With Cancer
National Cancer Institute
OF HEALTH AND
For more information . . .
This booklet is only one of many free booklets for people with
cancer. Here are some others you and your loved ones may
• Biological Therapy
• Chemotherapy and You
• Coping With Advanced Cancer
• Eating Hints for Cancer Patients
• Taking Part in Cancer Treatment Research Studies
• Pain Control
• Radiation Therapy and You
• Thinking About Complementary and Alternative Medicine
• When Cancer Returns
• When Someone You Love Is Being Treated for Cancer
• When Someone You Love Has Advanced Cancer
• When Your Brother or Sister Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens
• When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens
These free booklets are available from the National Cancer
Institute (NCI). NCI is a Federal agency that is part of the
National Institutes of Health. To order or download, call
For information about your specific type of cancer,
see NCI’s Physican Data Query (PDQ®) database at
http://www.cancer.gov. From the home page, it is listed under “Cancer Topics.”
We would like to offer our sincerest gratitude
to the extraordinary caregivers, health
professionals, and scientists who contributed to
the development and review of this publication.
Support for People With Cancer
This book was written for you—
the person with cancer.
Where are you in this challenge?
You may have just learned that you have cancer.
Or you may be in treatment.
At every point, most likely you have a range of feelings.
It’s important to try to accept these feelings and learn how
to live with them as best as you can.
Feelings about your cancer may be with you for a long time.
This book is for you, but it can also be helpful to those people
who are close to you. It may help them better understand
what you are going through. And even if you have
no close relatives or live far away from your family,
you may have friends who you think of as your “family.”
Whatever “family” means to you, share this book
with those who love and care about you.
No one knows the story of tomorrow’s dawn.
—Ashanti (African) Proverb
Cancer will change your life.
Millions of Americans alive today have a history of cancer. For them, cancer has become a chronic (on-going) health problem, like high blood pressure or diabetes.
Just like everyone, people who have cancer must get regular checkups for the rest of their lives, even after treatment ends. But unlike other chronic health problems, if you have cancer you probably won’t need to take medicine or eat special foods once you have finished treatment.
If you have cancer, you may notice every ache, pain, or sign of illness. Even little aches may make you worry. You may even think about dying. While it’s normal to think these thoughts, it’s also important to focus on living. Although some people do die of it, many with the disease are treated successfully. Others will live a long time before dying from it. So, try to make the most of each day while living with cancer and its treatment.
People respond to cancer in many ways.
This book was written to help you learn from other people with cancer. Many people have helped write this book—patients, their family members, and friends.
You will see their comments in all sections of the book. Finding out how others respond to cancer might help you understand your own feelings. And learning how others manage the special problems that cancer brings might help you find ways to cope with the problems that come along for you.
How to use this book
No two people are alike. Some chapters of this book may apply to your situation and others may not. Read the chapters that have meaning to you. The other chapters may be useful later on.
This book is divided into seven chapters, plus a resource section at the end. Use the Table of Contents to find the section of the book that’s most important to you during your treatment. Each chapter begins with a “Read This First” box, which tells you what is in that chapter. In addition, each chapter ends with a “Summing Up” box, which repeats the key ideas in that chapter.
As you read this booklet, remember, right now—it’s all about you!
Table of Contents
Learning you have cancer
You will have many feelings after you learn that you have cancer. These feelings can change from day to day, hour to hour, or even minute to minute.
Some of the feelings you may go through include:
All these feelings are normal.
“I heard the doctor say, ‘I’m sorry; the
test results show that you have cancer.’
I heard nothing else. My mind went blank,
and then I kept thinking, ‘No, there must be
Learning that you have cancer can come as a shock. How did you react? You may have felt numb, frightened, or angry. You may not have believed what the doctor was saying. You may have felt all alone, even if your friends and family were in the same room with you. These feelings are normal.
For many people, the first few weeks after diagnosis are very hard. After you hear the word “cancer,” you may have trouble breathing or listening to what is being said. When you’re at home, you may have trouble thinking, eating, or sleeping.
People with cancer and those close to them experience a wide range of feelings and emotions. These feelings can change often and without warning.
At times, you may:
■ be angry, afraid, or worried
■ not really believe that you have cancer
■ feel out of control and not able to care for yourself
■ be sad, guilty, or lonely
■ have a strong sense of hope for the future
This chapter looks at many of the feelings that come up when people find out they have cancer.
Once people accept that they have cancer, they often feel a sense of hope. There are many reasons to feel hopeful.
■ Cancer treatment can be successful. Millions of people who have had
cancer are alive today.
■ People with cancer can lead active lives, even during treatment.
■ Your chances of living with—and living beyond—cancer are better now
than they have ever been before. People often live for many years after their cancer treatment is over.
Some doctors think that hope may help your body deal with cancer. Scientists are looking at the question of whether a hopeful outlook and positive attitude helps people feel better.
Here are some ways you can build your sense of hope:
■ Write down your hopeful feelings and talk about them with others.
■ Plan your days as you have always done.
■■ Don’t limit the things you like to do just because you have cancer.
■■ Look for reasons to hope.
You may find hope in nature, or your religious or spiritual beliefs. Or you may find hope in stories (such as the ones in this book) about people with cancer who are leading active lives.
However long the night, the dawn will break.
—Hausa (African) Proverb
When you were first diagnosed, you may have had trouble believing or accepting the fact that you have cancer. This is called denial. It can be helpful because it can give you time to adjust to your diagnosis. Denial can also give you time to feel hopeful and better about the future.
Sometimes, denial is a serious problem. If it lasts too long, it can keep you from getting the treatment you need. It can also be a problem when other people deny that you have cancer, even after you have accepted it.
The good news is that most people (those with cancer as well as those they love and care about) work through denial. Usually by the time treatment begins, most people accept the fact that they have cancer.
Once you accept that you have cancer, you may feel angry and scared.
It’s normal to ask “Why me?” and be angry at:
■ the cancer
■ your health care providers
■ your healthy friends and loved ones
And if you’re religious, you might even be angry with God.
Anger sometimes comes from feelings that are hard to show—such as fear, panic, frustration, anxiety, or helplessness. If you feel angry, don’t pretend that everything is okay. Talk with your family and friends about it. Most of the time,
Fear and worry
“The word ‘cancer’ frightens everyone I know.
It’s a diagnosis that most people fear more than
It’s scary to hear that you have cancer. You may be afraid or worried about:
■ being in pain, either from the cancer or the treatment
■ feeling sick or looking different as a result of your treatment
■ taking care of your family
■ paying your bills
■ keeping your job
Your family and close friends may also worry about:
■■ seeing you upset or in pain
■■ not giving you enough support, love, and understanding
■■ living without you
Some fears about cancer are based on stories, rumors, and old information. Most people feel better when they know what to expect. They feel less afraid when they learn about cancer and its treatment. As one man with prostate cancer said:
“I read as much as I can find about my cancer.
Imagining the worst is scarier than knowing
what might happen. Having all the facts makes
me much less afraid.”
Your body may react to the stress and worry of having cancer. You may
■ your heart beats faster
■ you have headaches or muscle pains
■ you don’t feel like eating, or you eat more
■ you feel sick to your stomach or have diarrhea
■ you feel shaky, weak, or dizzy
■ you have a tight feeling in your throat and chest
■ you sleep too much or too little
■ you find it hard to concentrate
Stress can also keep your body from fighting disease as well as it should.
You can learn to handle stress in many ways, like:
■■ listening to music
■■ reading books, poems, or magazines
■■ getting involved in hobbies such as music or crafts
■ relaxing or meditating, such as lying down and slowly breathing in and out
■ talking about your feelings with family and close friends
If you’re concerned about stress, talk to your doctor. He or she can suggest a social worker or a counselor. You could also find a class that teaches people ways of dealing with stress. The key is to find ways to control stress and not to let it control you.
Talking to one another is loving one another.
Even though almost everyone worries about pain, it may not be a problem for you. Some people don’t have any pain. Others have it only once in a while. Cancer pain can almost always be relieved. If you’re in pain, your doctor can suggest ways to help you feel better. These include:
■ prescription or over-the-counter medicines
■ cold packs or heating pads
■ relaxation, like getting a massage or listening to soothing music
■ imagery, such as thinking about a place where you feel happy and calm
■ distraction, like watching a movie, working on a hobby, or anything that helps take your mind off your pain
There are many ways to control pain. Your doctor wants and needs to hear about your pain. As soon as you have pain you should speak up. Dealing with your pain can also help you cope with the feelings discussed in this chapter.
When you describe your pain to your health care provider, tell them:
■■ where you feel pain
■■ what it feels like (sharp, dull, throbbing, steady)
■■ how strong the pain feels
■■ how long it lasts
■■ what eases the pain and what makes it worse
■■ what medicines you are taking for the pain and how much they help
To find out more about pain, see the NCI booklet, Pain Control (information on
If you conceal your disease, you cannot expect to be cured.
Pain scales and pain journals
Pain scales or pain journals are tools that you can use to describe how much pain you feel. These tools can also help your doctor find ways to treat your pain.
You are the only person who can talk about the pain you feel. When it comes to pain, there is no right or wrong answer. On many pain scales, you are asked to rate your pain as a number from 0 to 10. For example, you would rate your pain as “0” if you feel no pain at all. You would rate your pain as “10” if it is the worst pain you have ever felt in your life. You can pick any number between 0 and 10 to describe your pain.
When you use a pain scale, be sure to include the range. For example, you might say, “Today my pain is a 7 on a scale from 0 to 10.”
A pain journal or diary is another tool you can use to describe your pain. With a journal or diary, you not only use a pain scale but also write down what you think causes your pain and what helps you feel better.
Control and self-esteem
When you first learn that you have cancer, you may feel as if your life is out of control. You may feel this way because:
■ you wonder if you’re going to live
■ your normal routine is disrupted by doctor visits and treatments
■ people use medical terms that you don’t understand
■ you feel like you can’t do things you enjoy
■ you feel helpless and lonely
■ you’ve never met some of the health professionals who are treating you Even though you may feel out of control, there are ways you can be in charge.
For example, you can:
■ Learn as much as you can about your cancer. You can call 1-800-4-CANCER
(1-800-422-6237). You can also go online at http://www.cancer.gov and
■■ Ask questions. Let your health providers know when you don’t understand what they are saying, or when you want more information about something.
■ Look beyond your cancer. Many people with cancer feel better when they stay busy. You may still go to work, even if you need to adjust your schedule.
You can also take part in hobbies such as music, crafts, or reading.
As one woman with cancer commented:
“Once I started to feel better, I found myself
looking for new outlets for creativity. I had
always promised myself that some day I would
take a photography course. Having a new hobby
helped me feel better about other areas of my
life as well.”
Sadness and depression
Many people with cancer feel sad or depressed. This is a normal response to any serious illness. When you’re depressed, you may have very little energy, feel tired, or not want to eat.
Depression is sometimes a serious problem. If feelings of sadness and despair seem to take over your life, you may have depression. The box on the next page lists eight common signs of depression. Let your health provider know if you have one or more of these signs almost every day.
Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you.
Early signs of depression
Check the signs that are problems for you:
■ a feeling that you are helpless and hopeless, or that life has no meaning
■ no interest in being with your family or friends
■ no interest in the hobbies and activities you used to enjoy
■ a loss of appetite, or no interest in food
■ crying for long periods of time, or many times each day
■ sleep problems, either sleeping too much or too little
■ changes in your energy level
■ frequent thoughts about death and dying, including making plans or
taking action to kill yourself.
Depression can be treated. Your doctor may prescribe medication. He or she may also suggest that you talk about your feelings with a counselor or social worker.
Many people with cancer feel guilty. For example, you may blame yourself for upsetting the people you love. You may worry that you are a burden to others, either emotionally or financially. Or you may envy other people’s good health and be ashamed of this feeling. You might even blame yourself for lifestyle choices that could have led to your cancer. For example, that lying out in the sun caused your skin cancer or that smoking cigarettes led to your lung cancer.
These feelings are all normal. One woman with breast cancer said:
“When I start to feel guilty that I caused my
illness, I think of how little children get cancer.
That makes me realize that cancer can just
happen. It isn’t my fault.”
Your family and friends may also feel guilty because:
■ they are healthy while you are sick
■ they can’t help you as much as they want
■■ they feel stressed and impatient
They may also feel guilty when they don’t think they can give you all the care and understanding you need.
Counseling and support groups can help with these feelings of guilt. Let your doctor or nurse know if you, or someone in your family, would like to talk with a counselor or go to a support group.
Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow.
People with cancer often feel lonely or distant from others. You may find that your friends have a hard time dealing with your cancer and may not visit. Some people might not even be able to call you on the phone. You may feel too sick to take part in the hobbies and activities you used to enjoy. And sometimes, even when you are with people you love and care about, you may feel that no one understands what you are going through.
You may feel less lonely when you meet other people who have cancer. Many people feel better when they join a support group and talk with others who are facing the same challenges. (See Chapter 5, “People Helping People.”)
Not everyone wants or is able to join a support group. Some people prefer to talk with just one person at a time. You may feel better talking to a close friend or family member, a social worker or counselor, or a member of your faith or spiritual community.
“I do have a lot of bad days, but you know, I don’t talk
about them or focus on them. Instead I think about
all the good things. I have a lot of nice times when I’m
with my grandchildren, when I go to church, and when
I’m with my friends.”
Some people see their cancer as a “wake-up call.” They may realize the importance of enjoying the little things in life. They go places they’ve never been.
They finish projects they had started but put aside. They spend more time with friends and family. They mend broken relationships.
It may be hard at first, but you can find joy in your life. Take note of what makes you smile. Pay attention to the things you do each day that you enjoy. They can be as simple as drinking your morning coffee, sitting with a pet, or talking to a friend. These small, day-to-day activities can give you comfort and pleasure.
You can also do things that are more meaningful to you. Everyone has special things, both large and small, that bring meaning to their life. For you, it may be visiting a garden in your city or town. It may be praying in a certain chapel. Or it could be playing golf or some other sport that you love. Whatever you choose, embrace the things that bring you joy and gratitude when you can.
Summing up: Learning you have cancer
You will have many feelings as you learn to live with cancer. These feelings can change from day to day, hour to hour, or even minute to minute.
Feelings of denial, anger, fear, stress and anxiety, depression, sadness, guilt, and loneliness are all normal. So is a feeling of hope. While no one is cheerful all the time, hope is a normal and positive part of your cancer experience.
Cancer will change your life and the lives of people around you.
■ Your routines may be altered.
■ Roles and duties may change.
■ Relationships can be strained or strengthened.
■ Dealing with money and insurance can cause problems.
■ You may need to live with someone else for a while.
■ You may need help with chores and errands.
Most people find that if they, their friends, and family talk about the cancer and how it makes them feel, they feel closer to each other.
How your family reacts to your cancer may depend a lot on how
you’ve faced hard times in the past.
Families are not all alike. Your family may include a spouse (husband or wife), children, and parents. Or maybe you think of your partner or close friends as your family. In this book, “family” refers to you and those who love and support you.
Cancer affects the whole family, not just the person with the disease. How are the people in your family dealing with your cancer? Maybe they are afraid or angry, just like you.
When you first find out you have cancer and are going through treatments, day-to-day routines may change for everyone. For example, someone in your family may need to take time off work to drive you to treatments. You may need help with chores and errands.
Some families find it easy to talk about cancer. They may easily share their feelings about the changes that cancer brings to their lives. Other families find it harder to talk about cancer. The people in these families may be used to solving problems alone and not want to talk about their feelings.
Families that have gone through divorce or had other losses may have even more trouble talking about cancer. As one woman with lung cancer said:
“Talking about my cancer was rough at first. My husband
and I divorced five years ago, so my mom had to move in and
help me with the boys. Eventually, I was able to tell my ex-
husband about my cancer, and he helped the boys understand.
Our family has been through a lot, and we’ll get through this,
too. To me, the only constant in life is change.”
If your family is having trouble talking about feelings, think about getting some help. Your doctor or nurse can refer you to a counselor who can help people in your family talk about what cancer means to them. Many families find that, even though it can be hard to do, they feel closer to each other when they deal with cancer together.
Changes to your roles in the family
When someone in a family has cancer, everyone takes on new roles and
responsibilities. For example, a child may be asked to do more chores or a spouse or partner may need to help pay bills, shop, or do yard work. Family members sometimes have trouble adjusting to these new roles.
Adjusting to your new situation
Many families have trouble getting used to the role changes that may be required when a loved one has cancer.
Money. Cancer can reduce the amount of money your family has to spend or save. If you’re not able to work, someone else in your family may feel that he or she needs to get a job. You and your family may need to learn more about health insurance and find out what will be covered and what you need to pay for. Most people find it stressful to keep up with money matters. (For more information,
Living arrangements. People with cancer sometimes need to change where they live or whom they live with. Now that you have cancer, you may need to move in with someone else to get the care you need. This can be hard because you may feel that you’re losing your independence, at least for a little while. Or, you may need to travel far from home for treatment. If you have to be away from home for treatments take a few little things from home with you. This way, there will be something familiar even in a strange place.
Daily activities. You may need help with duties such as paying bills, cooking meals, or coaching your children’s teams. Asking others to do these things for you can be hard. A young father in treatment for colon cancer said:
“When I came home from the hospital, I wanted to
be in charge again but simply didn’t have the energy.
It was so hard to ask for help! But it became easier
to accept help when I realized that my kids felt
that they were contributing to my recovery.”
Developing a plan
Even when others offer to help, it’s important to let people know that you can still do some things for yourself. As much as you’re able, keep up with your normal routine by making decisions, doing household chores, and working on hobbies that you enjoy.
Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Think about hiring someone or asking for a volunteer. You might be able to find a volunteer through groups in your community.
Paid help or volunteers may be able to help with:
■ physical care, such as bathing or dressing
■ household chores, such as cleaning or food shopping
■ skilled care, such as giving you special feedings or medications
Respite care. Just as you need time for yourself, your family members also need time to rest, have fun, and take care of their other duties. Respite care is a way people can get the time they need. In respite care, someone comes to your home and takes care of you while your family member goes out for a while. Let your doctor or social worker know if you want to learn more about respite care. (See
Spouses and partners
“I was scared when my husband got cancer. He had
always taken care of me and we did everything
together. I was afraid I wouldn’t be strong enough to
help him through his treatment. I was afraid that he
might not recover. And I was afraid to talk about my
fears with him because I didn’t want to upset him.”
Your husband, wife, or partner may feel just as scared by cancer as you do. You both may feel anxious, helpless, or afraid. You may find it hard to be taken care of by someone you love.
People react to cancer in different ways. Some cannot accept that cancer is a serious illness. Others try too hard to be “perfect” caregivers. And some people refuse to talk about cancer. For most people, thinking about the future is scary.
It helps if you and the people close to you can talk about your fears and concerns.
You may want to meet with a counselor who can help both of you talk about these feelings.
Including your spouse or partner in treatment decisions is important. You can meet with your doctor together and learn about your type of cancer. You might want to find out about common symptoms, treatment choices, and their side effects. This information will help both of you plan for the future.
Your spouse or partner will also need to know how to help take care of your body and your feelings. And, even though it’s not easy, both of you should think about the future and make plans in case you don’t survive your cancer. You may find it helpful to meet with a financial planner or a lawyer.
Everyone needs to feel needed and loved. You may have always been the “strong one” in your family, but now is the time to let your spouse or partner help you.
This can be as simple as letting the other person fluff your pillow, bring you a cool drink, or read to you.
Feeling sexually close to your partner is also important. You may not be interested in sex when you’re in treatment because you feel tired, sick to your stomach, or in pain. But when your treatment is over, you may feel like having sex again. Until then, you and your spouse or partner may need to find new ways to show that you care about each other. This can include touching, holding, hugging, and cuddling. (See also Chapter 6, “Dealing with a New Self-Image.”)
Your spouse or partner needs to keep a sense of balance in his or her life. He or she needs time to take care of personal chores and errands. Your partner will also need time to sort through his or her own feelings about cancer. And most importantly, everyone needs time to rest. If you don’t want to be alone when your loved one is away, think about getting respite care or asking a friend to stay with you. (See “Caregivers” on page 46.)
What the family talks about in the evening,
the child will talk about in the morning.
Even though your children will be sad and upset when they learn about your cancer, do not pretend that everything is okay. Even very young children can sense when something is wrong. They will see that you don’t feel well or aren’t spending as much time with them as you used to. They may notice that you have a lot of visitors and phone calls or that you need to be away from home for treatment and doctor’s visits.
Telling children about cancer
Children as young as 18 months old begin to think about and understand what is going on around them. It is important to be honest and tell your children that you are sick and the doctors are working to make you better. Telling them the truth is better than letting them imagine the worst. Give your children time to ask questions and express their feelings. And if they ask questions that you can’t answer, let them know that you will find out the answers for them.
When you talk with your children, use words and terms they can understand.
For example, say “doctor” instead of “oncologist” or “medicine” instead of
“chemotherapy.” Tell your children how much you love them and suggest ways they can help with your care. Share books about cancer that are written for children. Your doctor, nurse, or social worker can suggest good ones for your child.
Let other adults in your children’s lives know about your cancer. This includes teachers, neighbors, coaches, or other relatives who can spend extra time with them. These other adults may be able to take your children to their activities, as well as listen to their feelings and concerns. Your doctor or nurse can also help by talking with your children and answering their questions. Or you can ask them if there’s a child-life specialist on staff. This is a person who can help children understand medical issues and also offer psychological and emotional support.
How children may react
Children can react to cancer in many different ways. For example, they may:
■ be confused, scared, or lonely
■ feel guilty and think that something they did or said caused your cancer
■ feel angry when they are asked to be quiet or do more chores around
■ miss the amount of attention they are used to getting
■ regress and behave as they did when they were much younger
■ get into trouble at school or at home
■ be clingy and afraid to leave the house
“Now that my Mom has cancer, everything has changed.
I want to be with her, but I want to hang out with my
friends, too. She needs me to help with my little brother,
but what I really want to do is play football like I used to.”
Teenagers and a parent’s cancer
Teens are at a time in their lives when they are trying to break away and be independent from their parents. When a parent has cancer, breaking away can be hard for them to do. They may become angry, act out, or get into trouble.
Try to get your teens to talk about their feelings. Tell them as much as they want to know about your cancer. Ask them for their opinions and, if possible, let them help you make decisions.
Teens may want to talk with other people in their lives. Friends can be a great source of support, especially those who also have serious illness in their family.
Other family members, teachers, coaches, and spiritual leaders can also help.
Encourage your teenage children to talk about their fears and feelings with people they trust and feel close to. Some towns even have support groups for teens whose parents have cancer. Also, ask your social worker about Internet resources for this group. Many have online chats and forums for support. See the
What children of all ages need to know:
■ Nothing your child did, thought, or said caused you to get cancer.
■ You can’t catch cancer from another person. Just because you have cancer does not mean that others in your family will get it, too.
■■ Just because you have cancer does not mean you will die from it. In fact, many people live with cancer for a long time.
■■ Scientists are finding many new ways to treat cancer.
About living with cancer in the family
■ Your child is not alone. Other children have parents who have cancer.
■ It is okay to be upset, angry, or scared about your illness.
■■ Your child can’t do anything to change the fact that you have cancer.
■■ Family members may act differently because they are worried about you.
■■ You will make sure that your children are taken care of, no matter what happens to you.
About what they can do
■ They can help you by doing nice things like washing dishes or drawing you a picture.
■ They should still go to school and take part in sports and other fun activities.
■■ They can talk to other adults such as teachers, family members, and religious leaders.
Your relationship with your adult children may change now that you have cancer.
■ Ask them to take on new duties, such as making health care decisions, paying bills, or taking care of the house.
■ Ask them to explain some of the information you’ve received from your doctor or to go with you to doctor’s visits so they can also hear what the doctors are telling you.
■ Rely on them for emotional support. For instance, you may ask them to act as “go-betweens” with friends or other family members.
■ Want them to spend a lot of time with you. This can be hard, especially if they have jobs or young families of their own.
■ Find it hard to receive—rather than give—comfort and support from them.
■ Feel awkward when they help with your physical care, such as feeding or bathing.
As the adult daughter of a woman with ovarian cancer said:
“Mom was always the rock in the family. Whenever
any of us had a problem, we could go to her for help.
Now we had to help her. It was almost as though we
were the parents and she was the child. To make it
even harder, we had our own children to take care
of and jobs to go to.”
Talking with your adult children
It is important to talk about cancer with your adult children, even if they get upset or worry about you. Include them when talking about your treatment. Let them know your thoughts and wishes. They should be prepared in case you don’t recover from your cancer.
Even adult children worry that their parents will die. When they learn that you have cancer, adult children may realize how important you are to them. They may feel guilty if they haven’t been close with you. They may feel bad if they can’t spend a lot of time with you because they live far away or have other duties.
Some of these feelings may make it harder to talk to them.
If you have trouble talking with your adult children, ask your doctor to suggest a counselor or social worker you can all talk with.
Make the most of the time you have with your adult children. Talk about how much you mean to each other. Express all your feelings—not just love but also anxiety, sadness, and anger. Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing. It’s better to share your feelings rather than hide them.
One who conceals grief finds no remedy for it.
Cancer risk for the children of people who have cancer
Now that you have cancer, your children may wonder about their chance of getting it as well. A higher risk for some types of cancer is passed from parent to child. However, this is not the case for every type. And everyone’s body is different. If concerned, however, children should talk with a doctor about their risk of getting cancer.
Testing for certain genes can be a way to find out if a person is at higher risk of getting cancer. Although some genetic tests can be helpful, they don’t always give people the kinds of answers they are seeking. Talk to your doctor if you or someone in your family wants to learn more about genetic changes that increase cancer risk.
He or she can refer you to a person who is specially trained in this area. These experts can help you think through your choices and answer your questions.
Since people are living much longer these days, many people with cancer may also be caring for their aging parents. For example, you may help your parents with their shopping or take them to doctor. They may even live with you.
You have to decide how much to tell your parents about your cancer. Your decision may depend on how well they can understand and cope with the news. If your parents are in good health, think about talking with them about your disease.
Now that you have cancer, you may need extra help caring for your parents. You may need help only while you’re in treatment. Or you may need to make long-term changes in your parents’ care. Talk with your family members, friends, health professionals, and community agencies to see how they can help. (See
Do not protect yourself by a fence, but rather by your friends.
Once friends learn of your cancer, they may begin to worry. Some will ask you to tell them ways to help. Others will wonder how they can help but may not know how to ask. You can help your friends cope with the news by letting them help you in some way. Think about the things your friends do well and don’t mind doing. Make a list of things you think you might need. This way, when they ask you how they can be of help, you’ll be able to share your list of needs and allow them to pick something they’re willing to do.
Sample list of need:
■ Baby-sit on days that I go to treatment.
■ Prepare frozen meals for my “down days.”
■ Put my name on the prayer list at my place of worship.
■ Bring me a few books from the library when you go.
■ Visit for tea or coffee when you can.
■ Let others know that it is alright to call or visit me (or let others know that I’m not ready for visitors just yet).
Summing up: Cancer and your family
Cancer will not only change your life, but also the lives of those around you.
It impacts families and friends in different ways.
■ Talking about cancer can be hard for some families.
■ Routines of family life may change.
■ Roles and duties within the family will change.
■ Relationships can be both strained and strengthened.
■ Dealing with money and insurance often become hard.
■ You may need to change where you live and with whom, at least
As you think about how cancer has changed your life and your family’s life, think about reaching outside your family to get help.
■■ You may need help with household chores and errands.
■■ Respite care can give your regular caregivers a much-needed break.
■■ Counseling and support groups can help your family deal with the
issues that cancer raises.
Most families find that being honest and open about the cancer, about the problems that arise, and about their feelings, helps them handle the changes that cancer causes.
Your caregivers may find it helpful to read the NCI booklet, When Someone You Love is Being Treated for Cancer, listed on the inside front cover of this booklet.
Sharing your feelings about cancer
Talking about your feelings can help you deal with your cancer.
■■ Choose a good listener.
■■ Choose a good time to share your feelings.
■■ Understand your feelings of anger.
■■ Be truthful to what your feelings are.
You may need to find someone outside your family to talk to.
Cancer is too much to handle all by yourself.
Your friends and family have feelings about your cancer
Just as you have strong feelings about cancer, your family or friends will react to it as well. For instance, your friends or family may:
■ hide or deny if they feel sad
■ find someone to blame for your cancer
■ change the subject when someone talks about cancer
■ act mad for no real reason
■ make jokes about cancer
■ pretend to be cheerful all the time
■ avoid talking about your cancer
■ stay away from you, or keep their visits short
Finding a good listener
It can be hard to talk about how it feels to have cancer. But talking can help, even though it’s hard to do. Many people find that they feel better when they share their thoughts and feelings with their close family and friends.
Friends and family members may not always know what to say to you.
Sometimes they can help by just being good listeners. They don’t always need to give you advice or tell you what they think. They simply need to show that they care and are concerned about you.
You might find it helpful to talk about your feelings with people who aren’t family or friends. Instead, you might want to meet in a support group with others who have cancer or talk with a counselor. You can find more information about where to go for help in Chapter 5, “People Helping People” starting on page 37.
A single arrow is easily broken, but not ten in a bundle.
Choosing a good time to talk
Some people need time before they can talk about their feelings. If you aren’t ready, you might say, “I don’t feel like talking about my cancer right now. Maybe I will later.” And sometimes when you want to talk, your family and friends may not be ready to listen.
It’s often hard for other people to know when to talk about cancer. Sometimes people send a signal when they want to talk. They might:
■ bring up the subject of cancer
■ talk about things that have to do with cancer, such as a newspaper story about a new cancer treatment that they just read
■ spend more time with you
■ act nervous or make jokes that aren’t very funny
You can help people feel more comfortable by asking them what they think or how they feel. Sometimes people can’t put their feelings into words. Sometimes, they just want to hug each other or cry together. A man with stomach cancer said,
“It was really hard to get my sister to talk about my
cancer. Finally, I just said to her, ‘I know you’re really
worried and scared. So am I. Let’s talk about it.’ She
was so relieved that I had brought the subject up.”
Many people feel angry or frustrated when they deal with cancer. You might find that you get mad or upset with the people you depend on. You may get upset with small things that never bothered you before.
People can’t always express their feelings. Anger sometimes shows up as actions instead of words. You may find that you yell a lot at the kids or the dog. You might slam doors.
Try to figure out why you’re angry. Maybe you’re afraid of the cancer or are worried about money. You might even be angry about your treatment. A man with advanced cancer said:
“I got so angry some days that I just wanted to take
it out on something. On those days, I always tried to
be angry at my cancer, not at my wife and daughter.”
When anger rises, think of the consequences.
Be true to your feelings
Some people pretend to be cheerful, even when they’re not. They think that they won’t feel sad or angry if they act cheerful. Or they want to seem as if they’re able to handle the cancer by themselves. Also, your family and friends may not want to upset you and will act as if nothing is bothering them. You may even think that being cheerful may help your cancer go away.
When you have cancer, you have many reasons to be upset. “Down days” are to be expected. You don’t have to pretend to be cheerful when you’re not. This can keep you from getting the help you need. Be honest and talk about all your feelings, not just the positive ones. An older woman with liver cancer said:
“The advice of well-meaning friends to be positive, optimistic,
and upbeat can also be a call for silence. Ask them about it.
Don’t let them force you to put on a fake smile when that’s
the last thing you feel like doing.”
Sharing without talking
For many, it’s hard to talk about being sick. Others feel that cancer is a personal or private matter and find it hard to talk openly about it. If talking is hard for you, think about other ways to share your feelings. For instance, you may find it helpful to write about your feelings. This might be a good time to start a journal or diary if you don’t already have one. Writing about your feelings is a good way to sort through them and a good way to begin to deal with them. All you need to get started is something to write with and something to write on.
Journals can be personal or shared. People can use a journal as a way of ‘talking’
to each other. If you find it hard to talk to someone near to you about your cancer try starting a shared journal. Leave a booklet or pad in a private place that both of you select. When you need to share, write in it and return it to the private place.
Your loved one will do the same. Both of you will be able to know how the other is feeling without having to speak aloud.
If you have e-mail, this can also be a good way to share without talking.
Summing up: Sharing your thoughts and feelings
Cancer is hard to deal with all alone. Although talking about it may not be easy at first, most people find that sharing their thoughts and feelings helps them deal with their cancer.
Keep in mind:
■ Choose a good listener. You may not need someone to give you advice or tell you what to do. Instead, you may want someone who wants to hear
about and try to understand what life is like for you right now. You may need to look outside your family to find such a person.
■■ Choose a good time to share. Sometimes people will send signals to let you know they’re willing to talk about cancer with you. Sometimes you
can ask others about their thoughts and feelings.
■■ Understand anger. Sometimes angry words come from emotions other than anger, like frustration, worry, or sadness. Try to figure out why you feel angry and why you need to express it. Don’t run away from these
feelings—share them and try to understand them.
■ Be true to your feelings. Remember that it’s okay to be in a bad mood.
Acting cheerful won’t give others a real picture of how you feel, and
holding in your true feelings may even be harmful.
■ Turn to community resources for help. A support group or a counselor might be able to provide more support.
Talking to your health care team
When you first learn you have cancer, daily life can feel like it is turned upside down. Learning more about your type of cancer and its treatment can help you feel more in control.
Learn about your type of cancer and its treatment by:
■ asking your health care providers questions
■ taking notes during your doctor visits
■ getting a second opinion
■ calling the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-422-6237
■■ visiting a public library or a hospital library for patients and families Learning about your cancer can help you talk to your doctor about which treatment is right for you.
“At first, I felt overwhelmed. But once I
gathered information, I felt comfortable talking
with my doctor about my cancer and ready to
make decisions about my treatment.”
Cancer can rob people of a sense of control over their lives. You may feel that your future is uncertain and you don’t know if you are going to live. Or you may rely on doctors you hardly know to help you make health decisions.
People often feel more in control when they learn as much as they can about cancer and its treatment. They say that it is easier to make decisions when they know what to expect. How much do you know about your cancer and its treatment?
Learning from your health care providers
Doctors, nurses, and other health care providers can teach you a lot about cancer and its treatment. But sometimes people have trouble learning because they’re scared or confused. These feelings can make it hard to learn new information.
When anxiety goes up, it makes it harder to remember things. But, there are things you can do to make it easier to learn.
Ask your doctor or nurse to write down the name and stage of
There are many different types of cancer and each type has its own name. “Stage”
refers to the size of the cancer tumor and how far it has spread in your body.
Knowing the name and stage of your cancer will help:
■ you find out more about your cancer
■ your doctor and you decide what treatment choices you have
Ask as many questions as you need to.
Your doctor needs to know your questions and concerns. Write down your questions and bring them with you to the doctor’s visit. Sometimes you can even send your questions ahead of time. Your doctor can get information ready for you if he or she knows your questions in advance. If you have a lot of questions, you and your doctor may want to plan extra time to talk about them.
Don’t worry if your questions seem silly or don’t make sense.