The family affair

Cancer is not an isolated illness. It invades the homes and the lives of everyone concerned.

When cancer is first diagnosed there is a high degree of emotional anxiety present in the family and loved ones. It is of paramount importance that responsibilities be discussed and then distributed amongst family members and friends. A primary support person or caregiver should also be chosen at this stage.

Who to choose as the supporter will be influenced by factors such as the family structure, people’s current circumstances, support requirements and the degree of illness in the person requiring support. In most cases the supporter steps into the required situation automatically – especially in families where an integrated support structure is willingly constructed.

Supporters need to:

  • Listen with empathy
  • Share information
  • Lend adequate emotional support
  • Encourage a positive mind set
  • Take over certain tasks for the household
  • Remember things and maintain the treatment diary
  • Keep others at a respectful distance when needed and speak up for the survivor when asked to – but know when to keep quiet
  • Put their own self aside
  • Create an atmosphere of togetherness
  • Be willing to extend support to other family members.

Being a primary supporter is a selfless task and supporters may find that their life becomes complicated by responsibilities that they had not previously thought of nor encountered. It often happens that the supporter fades into the background as all the focus and concern is directed onto the person being supported. Although the supporter requires constant acknowledgement and counter-support from family and friends, this is often in short supply. When the needs of the supporter are ignored it can breed irritation and resentment toward the situation. Relationships come under immense strain and, instead of a period of personal growth, a pattern of disintegration may take place.

Supporters may experience:

  • Sadness for the person they are caring for, and for the general circumstances.
  • Anger at self, at the person being supported and at other family members. Fear is often the trigger for anger.
  • Grief for the loss of health in the person they are supporting, the pain they are enduring or grief for self (self pity).
  • Guilt for thinking that the help offered may be inadequate.
  • Loneliness – feeling that no-one understands the role of the supporter
  • Excluded – as the available time to spend with family and friends on hobbies, sports and other fun pastimes is reduced.   

It is essential that the supporter, when experiencing any of the above feelings, seeks assistance from friends or family and discusses it with the entire family (including the person they are supporting).

If needs be the supporter should consult a professional therapist, an established support group or spiritual leader to help regain their perspective on the situation and remember why they agreed to take on this role. Open and honest dialogue is the only way to understanding and acceptance during a passage of change and uncertainty.

Cancer in a family should perhaps be interpreted as a relay race where the family enters the race as a team, and the baton is passed from one runner to the next to the next, and so everyone takes part in the race and all emerge as winners.

Written by Magda Rall