When someone is diagnosed with cancer, it is normal to focus on physical well-being. However, there are other parts of life that are affected by cancer. Cancer affects not only the biological, but also the psychological and social areas of a person’s life.
To better understand how cancer psychologically and socially affects a person, Rena Szabo, PsyD, provided details for what patients and families should expect. Dr. Szabo is a Health Psychologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center and the Psychology Director for Banner Medical Group. She regularly works with cancer patients and their families to help them through a very challenging time in their lives.
“After a cancer diagnosis, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and out of control,” Dr. Szabo said.
“It can bring up a wide range of feelings that a person is not used to dealing with and these feelings may seem more intense at times. This may happen at diagnosis, during treatment or in survivorship, and this is normal.”
Research has demonstrated that cancer patients with strong social and emotional support tend to better adjust to treatment, changes that cancer brings to their lives and a better quality of life. Dr. Szabo strongly recommends that her patients find people in their lives who they can count on and who they feel comfortable talking about their illness with as she emphasizes the importance of social interaction and relationships in the cancer journey.
Dealing with cancer
Cancer can steal life’s balance. Dr. Szabo encourages patients to remember the things they need to maintain a healthy mind, body, spirit. Dr. Szabo encourages her patients to take an active role in dealing with cancer and their diagnosis and seek out support for the psychological and social parts of their lives, especially when it comes to dealing with a cancer diagnosis in the family.
When a person finds out that a friend or family member has cancer it may invoke many questions about the cancer itself and the impact on the relationship. It is important that family and friends pay attention to their own reactions to the cancer diagnosis. Communication and flexibility with self and other are really important throughout the cancer journey. There will be physical and emotional changes that may impact the relationship. The most important thing someone can do is to listen and respond from the heart.
Dr. Szabo noted that no two cancer journeys are the same, but you should expect relationships to change. She said you should remember people express emotions differently once cancer is diagnosed. Although some friends and family members may distance themselves from you, others will surprise you with the emotional and physical support throughout the cancer journey. Remember, much of the reaction is related to past experiences and not related to you.
Your relationships may face new challenges, including, but not limited to, the following topics:
- Change in roles
- Change in responsibilities
- Physical changes
- Sexuality and/or intimacy
- Low energy, fatigue, pain
- Emotional challenges
- Financial stress
- Employment concerns
- Friend and family reactions to cancer
Reducing the strain from cancer on relationships
To help reduce the strain on relationships, Dr. Szabo recommended ongoing and open communication between patients and family and friends. This includes the patient setting boundaries and being honest about what they can and cannot do.
Dr. Szabo recommended the following as a few ways friends and relatives can help those dealing with cancer:
- Keep your relationship as normal as possible
- Be consistent, honest and a good listener
- Send or prepare a meal
- Offer help with child care
- Offer rides to and from treatment
- Run errands for the patient
- Be patient and do not judge
- Understand the patient’s wishes
- Offer financial assistance if needed and possible
Most importantly, Dr. Szabo emphasized that friends and relatives should not disappear when a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, during treatment and during survivorship. It is important to be there to listen and respond from the heart and throughout the cancer journey, she said.
“I find that helping patients to stay in the moment and take cancer one day at a time is really important,” Dr. Szabo said.
She also noted that it is perfectly normal and can be quite helpful to seek the advice of a health psychologist, who uses evidenced-based practices to help manage the biological, psychological and social issues surrounding cancer treatment. She encourages that her patients remember that they need to maintain a healthy mind, body, and spirit during their cancer journey.
Dr. Szabo noted several national organizations also exist to help patients during their fight with cancer. For example, Dr. Szabo suggests looking at resources available on Cancer.gov or Livestrong. Finally, she also advocates that her patients explore support groups and professional assistance from a health psychologist or a social worker, as well.