Family dynamics can be emotionally charged at the best of times. When someone is living in pain or with serious illness like cancer, even the most mundane of conversations can turn into feeling like everyone is walking on eggshells.
Caregivers of cancer patients soon discover that sometimes physical pain comes out emotionally — often at unexpected moments —and everyone in the family is affected.
Recently, my best friend from high school, Laura, was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She is only 39 years old. At first I literally couldn’t believe the news. While she has considerable pain and weight loss, the improvements she has made with intensive treatments are astonishing. She is no longer on morphine and her white blood cell count is on the rise. Her determination to overcome this disease is fierce, and with the constant support of her family caregivers, her improvement has been encouraging.
When someone you love is fighting cancer, or any serious disease, there are good days and bad days. Caregivers of cancer patients soon discover that sometimes physical pain comes out emotionally — often at unexpected moments —and everyone in the family is affected.
Just say okay
It can be difficult to avoid walking on eggshells when someone you love and care about is living with cancer. Tensions can rise and when you feel you just want to let your own emotions out, instead, try to just say “okay” and listen. Often a person’s emotions are a reaction to their physical pain, the need to feel some independence, a feeling like they are a burden to their caregivers, or a combination of all three. Don’t take it personally.
One afternoon when I was visiting my friend Laura, an attempt to book a physiotherapist appointment hit the rails. Laura was in a great deal of pain when she texted the office on her phone. Her mom, not realizing that Laura was doing this, also called the office from another room. When Laura realized the messages were getting duplicated she became angry and tearful, and the whole scene escalated — cue the eggshells.
When the dust settled, Laura explained that she didn’t want to be angry and lash out. She just misses her old life and desperately wanted to feel independent by making one appointment.
Laura’s mom very calmly and quietly listened, repeating “Okay. It’s okay. What do you want me to do right now?” She was then able to give Laura more pain medication. Soon there were hugs and a resolution. We got out of the house for a short drive while her parents and brother went for a walk to the grocery store. It was the perfect timeout that everyone needed.
See also our Elizz article on Patient and Caregiver Communication.
Emotional triggers are different for everyone. Fear, missing specific foods or activities, or loss of independence can all trigger strong emotions when least expected. Being reminded of something you can’t have or do is really hard.
For example, if the person has a very restricted diet, you can be doing all the right things to provide the nutrition their body needs to rebuild itself and metabolize food. Or, they may not be hungry at all. While it’s not realistic that everyone else follows the same restricted diet seeing others enjoying certain foods or smelling their coffee can be really hard.
Try talking about these types of situations openly. Do they prefer to be in another room? Does it depend on the situation? Or is it better for everybody to just have that cup of coffee at a distance?
Remember the happiness triggers
Days are unpredictable, but Laura doesn't want the topic of cancer to trump everything. Talking about everyday things provides a sense of normalcy. At first it felt trivial to have “normal” conversations, but I quickly realized that when Laura is scared, lonely and in pain, she has never needed them more.
Something as simple as love makes all the difference. Sharing memories, helping her do something creative, getting her advice, even laughing that we had to have a conversation with me staring at her back because sitting doubled over was all that made her pain subside. In retrospect, I should have just laid on the floor! All these things can help ease the tension, even just momentarily.
Being drawn closer together with family and friends has given Laura hope, but mostly it has made her feel loved, appreciated, and wanted. Cancer makes a lot of noise, but her spirit is louder.
Laura’s cancer is a kick in the guts — literally — but it’s also a journey that has brought a lot of connection and hope. This would not be possible without the hard moments too, and learning how to cope with the emotional as well as the physical healing.
For caregivers of cancer patients, persevering to find your own creative solutions is hard work, and you can’t do it alone. Show yourself some kindness. Accept that there is also care for caregivers. You need support just as much as the person you’re caring for.
Elizz Caregiving has many caregiver support services to help you. For more information, call 1-855-ASK-ELIZ (275-3549) today!