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When it Comes to Cancer, It’s a Family Affair

November 06, 2019

For all the many ways that cancer patients engage with healthcare providers, the reality is that patients walk most of the miles of their cancer journey alongside family members – outside of the clinic or hospital. Parodies poking fun at the family dysfunction that rears its head around the holidays make us laugh as well as perhaps sting with a bit of truth. Indeed, for better or worse, family dynamics shape how we approach life and life’s big challenges like cancer.

When it comes to cancer, there is a reverberating effect that is seen, heard, and felt in families. More than 1.76 million new cases of cancer are expected to be diagnosed in the United States in 2019 – and more than 124,000 of those will be in Texas, according to the American Cancer Society and the Texas Cancer Registry. For every new case, countless family members and loved ones are impacted.

Whether you are a patient, caregiver, or love someone with cancer, it’s important to remember that you can cultivate an environment of care and support within your family.

Communicate as openly and honestly as you are comfortable.

Often while patients are coming to terms with their cancer diagnoses, their family members also are struggling with their feelings. With everyone grappling with emotions ranging from fear and devastation to determination, communication is critical. It’s normal to feel fear, loss of control, disbelief, and guilt. Be as open as you are comfortable and set boundaries if you need to. Recognize that people often have diverse reactions to a diagnosis. Keep in mind that negative reactions are often focused on the diagnosis, not loved ones.

Discuss expectations early and often.

A patient’s expectations and well-being should be at the forefront. Adult children who don’t agree about their parent’s treatment plan, family members who live far away and don’t know how they can help, unanticipated changes to younger children’s daily activities that they don’t understand – the opportunities for unmet expectations abound when not adequately addressed. This friction can last well beyond the initial diagnosis. Talk to a patient navigator or physician about the benefits of advance care planning to better understand the patient’s wishes and to ensure they’re followed throughout the cancer journey.

Take time to connect as a family.

The American Cancer Society reports that three out of four families have at least one member who is a cancer survivor. Beyond daily activities, cancer impacts relationships, shifts family roles, impacts finances, and sometimes living arrangements. As everyone adjusts to the circumstances, spend quality time together doing something enjoyable – where cancer is not the topic of the conversation.

Ask for – and be willing to accept – support.

Supporting a family member with cancer comes with a lot of responsibility that at times may feel overwhelming. The American Society of Clinical Oncologists (ASCO) defines “informal caregivers” as family members who play an important role in the management of cancer and perform tasks that may be physically, emotionally, and socially demanding. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness – it’s a sign of strength. Family members can reach out for support to other family members, friends, or even community or church groups. If you’re a patient receiving care from a loved one, encourage them to find support and rest.

Families play an integral role in cancer care whether it’s helping patients get to appointments, ensuring medications are taken as directed, or providing a needed meal or hug. At Texas Oncology, we recognize families as essential members of the care team, joining with us in their loved one’s fight against cancer.

For upcoming webinars visit www.TexasOncologyFoundation.org.