Your partner’s cancer impacts you and the rest of your family. Because of this, you’ll likely be faced with updating family members, dealing with everyone’s questions, and hearing opinions and offers to help. It can be a blessing. But it can also be an added source of stress if you have to deal with difficult family members. Read on to learn how to care for your partner, help make difficult decisions, and understand and support the rest of the family (outside your nuclear family) during this time.
How Does Cancer Affect Family Members?
Cancer takes a toll on the whole family, both emotionally and physically. Family members may feel helpless watching their loved one suffer. This feeling can be more intense if they’re far away and unable to visit or help easily. Like you, your family members will also experience a range of emotions, such as guilt, anger, depression, anxiety, and frustration.
These feelings are a normal reaction to a serious diagnosis. If you’re a family member reading this, it’s important to acknowledge and process those feelings with someone other than the person with cancer or their partner. Find a therapist, coach, or good friend who will listen while you express your thoughts and process what you’re going through. The last thing you want is to lay your fears and worries on your loved one with cancer or their partner. This will do more harm to the family than good.
In addition to emotional stress, cancer can also take a physical toll on family members who step into caregiving roles. Caregiving can be physically and mentally exhausting. If you’re a family member who wants to help, be sure to make allowances in your schedule. Don’t just try to add more to an already busy life. And if you’re unable to help, don’t offer out of obligation or guilt. Be OK with saying no or offering an alternative way that’s comfortable for you.
How Do Families Cope with a Cancer Diagnosis?
It’s impossible to predict how a family member will cope with their loved one’s cancer diagnosis. Different people will respond differently, and how they cope will be heavily influenced by what’s going on in their own lives.
Some family members will be supportive and caring, respectful of your privacy, and willing to help. These family members are a blessing. Show your gratitude often by telling them how much you appreciate their support.
Other members may struggle to accept this new reality and handle it by becoming controlling, extremely opinionated, or blameful. They may try to get overly involved in your treatment decisions, share their dislike and disagreement about how you’re doing things, let you know what you should be doing instead, or maybe even blame you for their loved one’s situation. Keep in mind that when people face the possibility of losing someone they love, they often react from a place of fear.
And still, other members may distance themselves. They won’t reach out. They’ll avoid visits and phone calls. And they’ll never offer any help. While this may feel hurtful and like they don’t care, it typically has to do with something happening in their own lives. They may not know what to say or feel they have nothing to offer.
These, of course, are generalizations, and your difficult family members will probably fall somewhere in between.
5 Tips for Dealing with Difficult Family Members in Healthcare
Dealing with difficult family members on top of your partner’s cancer diagnosis can be frustrating. However, you can’t control how people will react once they get the news that their loved one has cancer. You can, however, decide how you will respond. Here are five tips for dealing with difficult family members in healthcare as you go through this cancer journey with your partner.
1. Practice Compassion and Empathy
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This advice by Steven Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People applies very well in this situation. If you have a difficult family member, take a minute to reflect on why they might be behaving a certain way. What emotion might they be feeling?
Often, a person who becomes difficult in some way is struggling with their own emotions. Lacking an outlet or skills to cope with their feelings, they may end up dumping their fears and worries on you. Fear and helplessness are emotions that often come up for family members. If you can understand why they might be acting this way, it can become easier to decide how to respond.
2. Ask: “What Am I Making This Mean?”
What we feel about another person is based on our judgment about what they said/did (or didn’t say/do). In other words, it’s not their actual words or actions but our thoughts about their words or actions that hold meaning. This is a fundamental distinction! We have an opinion about how they should behave, so we interpret their words or actions in a certain way. The key here is to recognize that this is just your thought about their words/behavior, and it’s optional.
One good way to identify this is by asking yourself, “What am I making their words/behavior mean?” You may find that you are making it mean they don’t care, are mad at you, or are selfish. All of these are just interpretations that cause you to feel terrible. Instead, you could choose to believe that “they are hurting” or “they feel helpless.” When you decide to think differently about their behavior, it enables you to feel less frustration and anger.
3. Don’t Try To Change Them
It won’t work, no matter what you say or do or how you try to explain or get them to understand. You can’t change people. You can’t make difficult family members stop being difficult, especially if it’s repeated behavior.
I bring this up because it’s easy to get locked into an unhelpful and fruitless game of trying to change someone’s behavior. This will only cause you to feel frustrated and angry and will drive a bigger wedge between you. No one likes to be told how to act. Save yourself the energy.
4. Respond out of Love
How should you respond then? Do you just take it? I encourage you to do what feels right to you and always act from a place of love. That may mean not engaging with them at all because it will upset you and won’t do them any good. It may mean setting some conditions for yourself on what you will do if certain behaviors come up. It may mean asking your partner to deal with them. Whatever you decide, make sure it’s out of love. And decide in advance so that you’re not caught up in the emotions of the moment.
5. Practice Open, Honest, and Direct Communication
I always recommend practicing open, honest, and direct communication. Sometimes you may be tempted to lie or omit in an effort to spare people’s feelings, but that often leads to other problems. Remember, it’s not your job to manage someone’s emotions. It’s only your job to manage your own. If you have a difficult topic you need to address, make sure you are calm and rested. Think in advance about how you want to feel during the conversation, and decide to feel that way. If you’re working with a coach, ask them to help you work through any anxiety about the conversation beforehand. Prepare yourself to handle difficult family members in the best way possible.
Navigate Difficult Family Members with a Life Coach for You
Difficult family members are just one of the things you have to navigate when your partner has cancer. That, on top of everything else, can quickly become overwhelming and draining. By working with a life coach for you when your partner has cancer, you’ll find the support and guidance you need to work through these challenging situations. If you want support for yourself during this time, schedule a free coaching consultation with me today!