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5 Things People Going Through Cancer Want You To Know

03/09/2016 04:29 EST | Updated 03/10/2017 05:12 EST
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Written by Natalie Chung-Sayers, Sunnybrook's Communications Advisor for the Odette Cancer Program, and Microbiology, and Infectious Diseases.

We have all been touched by cancer. Perhaps a loved one, a friend or a neighbour has received a diagnosis. We want to help. But how?

Dr. Janet Ellis, a psychiatrist with the Odette Cancer Centre's Patient and Family Support program who specializes in psychosocial oncology, says it's best to be open and supportive of what is important or difficult for the individual, rather than making assumptions or giving advice to "think positive."

Support, and allow for independence

As a person struggles to take in the shock of diagnosis, there may be difficult changes to their role and identity. For example, within the family, he or she may feel guilty or sad as a parent. At work, it may be stressful to have to take time off for treatment. There may be an unnerving sense of loss of independence, she says. A usually self-reliant person may feel guilty about becoming a burden. "It is very disheartening to feel 'powerless' when you are used to doing most things yourself," says Dr. Ellis. If this is distressing, she says to encourage the individual to seek or accept expert help, while respecting their independence as much as possible.

Reduce uncertainty and stress

Each stage of the cancer journey has its own challenges, including dealing with "a dual reality" or continuing to live while being aware of the possibility -- or reality -- of dying. Sometimes it's hard for friends and family to accept this thinking, but it's important for the person to be allowed to share this perspective. Simply being there to listen without trying to solve the problem can be immensely helpful. There may be uncertainty and a significant fear of the cancer coming back. Caregivers, family and friends can help the individual regain a sense of control, and offer practical support like rides to treatment appointments, organizing friends to do a meal-delivery rotation, or picking up children from school.

Coping with pain, suffering and emotions

It's critical to tenderly validate an individual's pain and suffering and ask what might be helpful. "We also want to be understanding of emotions. Fear and sadness should not be viewed as negative or as "having a bad attitude." says Dr. Ellis. "These feelings are normal."

Be encouraging and realistic

You're looking as good as, or better than you did before! It's best to avoid adding expectation that once treatment is complete, the individual gets back quickly to the business of living as they were. They are still likely absorbing the enormity of having a cancer diagnosis and coping with treatment side effects such as hair loss, impotence, premature menopause, fatigue and brain fog. When appropriate, encourage dialogue: You're looking good, but what, or how are you actually feeling?

Build a legacy of authenticity and meaning

There may come a time when the individual is at an advanced stage of the journey. If the cancer progresses, independent people and those who like to have a sense of control may benefit from knowing all the options that lie ahead in order to plan and feel less worried and vulnerable.

Feeling connected to others and having a sense of the meaning and purpose of their life is vital, she says. Caregivers, family and friends can help focus on the individual's personhood, and not the illness. Allow both humanity and humour. If raised, help the individual to resolve any regrets and conflicts.

We all will benefit from a sense of legacy -- the power of knowing where you've made a difference and what you're proud of -- is limitless. There is no one better than friends and family to affirm and celebrate their loved one.

Find more information and resources for living with cancer by Sunnybrook experts at health.sunnybrook.ca

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