Helping a Loved One With a Cancer Diagnosis
By Alex Strauss
Receiving a diagnosis of mesothelioma – or any other type of cancer – can be devastating to patients and their loved ones. The experience can throw families into a whirlwind of emotions ranging from grief and sadness to anger, frustration, and feelings of helplessness.
But after these initial reactions subside, many families find themselves ready to take action and help their loved one not only cope with their cancer but also fight it with information and resources. Fortunately, there are many ways to support and guide mesothelioma patients and those with other types of cancer.
The first and most important thing a loved one with mesothelioma needs is emotional support. Receiving a cancer diagnosis may be just the beginning of an emotional roller coaster that may last through treatment and even into remission or recovery. Multiple studies have confirmed that cancer patients who feel as though they are supported emotionally tolerate treatment better and tend to have better outcomes.
- Listen – Although family members may be going through their own emotional struggles, it is important to spend time simply listening to a loved one with cancer. Many cancer patients process emotions and decisions by talking about them. Listening is a simple but powerful way to offer emotional support in all kinds of stressful situations.
- Empathize – While family members may never know exactly what it is like to have cancer, they can remember stressful or painful times in their own lives and extend the kind of warmth and caring they would have wanted in those times to their loved one with cancer. This can include simply recognizing and acknowledging their trying time.
- Be Patient – It is natural to feel frustrated by a cancer patient’s own emotional highs and lows. Family members can help by being emotionally prepared for these times themselves, and respecting the needs and opinions of their loved one, even if they are different from their own.
Because cancer care can be complex and multifaceted, cancer patients often prefer to have one or more family members with them when they meet with their healthcare provider. The National Cancer Institute recommends that families make the most of these opportunities by
- Making a list of questions before each appointment
- Taking notes or recording the doctor during the appointment
- Getting a phone number to call with follow-up questions
- Keeping a file or notebook of all papers and test results and bringing it to medical visits
- Keeping a record or diary of all doctor visits and list the drugs and tests that have been done
- Keeping a record of symptoms and side effects, noting when and where they occur
- Finding out what to do in an emergency, including the number to call and where to go
These organizational tips can be especially helpful to large families where different family members may be involved in the patient’s care and may need to refer back to past appointments.
One of the most overwhelming aspects of receiving a cancer diagnosis is the need to understand and consider all possible treatment options. Cancer care is advancing rapidly with new research studies being released almost daily. Although a newly-diagnosed mesothelioma patient may initially be told that there is statistically little hope for long-term survival, there are many examples of mesothelioma patients whose lives have been extended by aggressive multi-modal treatments, experimental therapies, or alternative approaches.
Family members can help their loved one make informed treatment decisions by arming themselves with knowledge from a variety of different sources including:
- Informational websites – Reputable cancer-specific websites such as SurvivingMesothelioma.com or general cancer information sites like Cancer.gov can be excellent resources for up-to-date research on the newest drugs, procedures, and alternative therapies.
- Clinical Trials Listing – Because malignant mesothelioma is a cancer that is frequently unresponsive to traditional cancer treatments, some mesothelioma patients opt to participate in clinical trials in order gain access to cutting edge treatments and new drugs. Family members can help by reviewing the list of open clinical trials at ClinicalTrials.gov.
- Cancer Survivors – People who have survived cancer can be an excellent source of information and inspiration for people currently in treatment. The Internet is a rich source of information on people around the world who have survived and are willing to give advice and support “from the trenches”. Local cancer centers often also keep lists of cancer survivors who are willing to talk to new patients and their families.
- Another Doctor – Many cancer patients decide to seek the knowledge and advice of more than one doctor in order to confirm a diagnosis and evaluate treatment options. Family members can help their loved one find someone with expertise in their particular type of cancer by searching various online databases. For instance, research has shown that outcomes tend to be better when a mesothelioma patient works with a doctor familiar with asbestos cancer.