October 9, 2011

When someone you love is diagnosed with cancer

Two important things to do are to stay positive and to become informed.

By KATHLEEN CONNELLY, Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

It is surely one of the most frightening words in any language, a word that sends your mind leaping to the worst possible conclusions. When cancer is diagnosed in someone you love, it not only turns the patient's world upside down but yours as well.

Depending on how close you are to the patient, both geographically and emotionally, you may find your life dominated by the diagnosis for an indefinite period of time. Even if you're not the primary caregiver, you may find yourself affected in ways that would never have occurred to you B.C. (Before Cancer).

I found this out the hard way. From 2006 through 2009, from the cancer journeys of my aunt, mother, brother, sister and best friend, I learned far more about coping with a loved one's cancer than I ever wanted to know. And the older you get, the more likely it is you will have to accompany someone you love on the scary, exhausting, tear-soaked, hopeful, life-altering roller-coaster ride that is cancer.

According to the American Society for Clinical Oncology "the greatest single risk factor for developing cancer is aging," which is why as seniors we're increasingly likely to encounter it.

On the other hand, optimism is an essential tool for survival, so here's some good news: The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health reports that death rates from cancer for all ages are decreasing. Since cancer is still unknown territory for most people, let me share some ways of coping.

• Stay positive. I meant it about optimism; a positive attitude can be one of the strongest medicines. This holds true for family and friends as well as the patient. Early detection and medical advances have made many cancers curable, or at least manageable. Cancer patients can go on to lead long and full lives. Though panic and fear are understandable first reactions, cancer does not automatically mean death. Keep telling yourself that -- even if you have to put a sign on your teapot to remind you first thing every morning the way I did: "Cancer Is Survivable!"

• Be informed. One of the things I found most surprising was how confusing cancer could be. There are so many kinds, and so many variables affecting its outcome. When my friend Sarah's son was diagnosed with a brain tumor called glioblastoma, Sarah combed the Internet late into the night.

"I wanted to know all about this cancer that I had never even heard of. I stayed up late many nights, researching. I wanted to be prepared for everything and anything, to know what was possible in terms of treatment. I wanted Andy to have every possible support."

Staying well-informed will make you feel less helpless. Obviously your oncologist and treatment center will be your first source of information, but the Internet can also be valuable. One caveat: Stick with reputable websites, whether searching traditional or nontraditional approaches.

• Find a support group. Talking to someone who knows first-hand what you're going through can be incredibly comforting and strengthening.

One excellent resource in the Greater Portland area is the Cancer Community Center in South Portland. Their free classes, activities and support groups are not just for cancer patients and survivors, but for anyone impacted by the disease.

"The center provides resources specifically for caregivers," Jani Darak-Druck, manager of volunteer services, said. "Our Caregivers Support Group is for anyone affected by someone else's cancer, whether by supporting a friend or family member or providing direct care. It meets every other week at the Cancer Community Center on Thursdays from 4:30 to 5:45 p.m."

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