Balancing Hope and Reality After a Loved One’s Cancer Diagnosis

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By Stan Goldberg, Ph.D.

Supporting a loved one with cancer involves a balance of reality and hope. Too much reality can cast a dark cloud over treatment stages or whatever time your loved one has left. Too much hope could lead him or her to delay preparing for a possible decline in health.

Support for a friend or family member with cancer doesn’t always have to be in the form of hope for a cure. Try to find middle ground between frivolous hope and crushing reality. We all hope for the best, but sometimes the most meaningful action is the quiet acceptance of what the cancer patient is going through.

Consider these five suggestions for balancing hope and reality in your efforts to ease the path your loved one is traveling. 

1. Be a sounding board, not a cheerleader. A cancer diagnosis is devastating. During the time your loved one attempts to adjust to the news, it’s important to be supportive. But that’s not the same as being a cheerleader. It’s natural to want to offer hope when the outcome is uncertain. Still, while unfounded optimism may produce momentary relief, it can sound hollow over time. Listen carefully, and keep your comments directly related to what was said.Respond with honesty and compassion. 

2. Put your preferences aside. Living with cancer involves constant choices involving what interventions to chose, or whether to forego treatment entirely. You may be tempted to offer your opinion, saying, “If it were me, I would…” However, that’s not helpful. Don’t feel compelled to give your opinion. Decisions on choosing a type of intervention — or not — can only be understood from your loved one’s perspective.

3. Honor the cancer patient’s reality. You may be tempted to argue with your loved one that her interpretation of what she heard or experienced wasn’t “real,” or that she’s overreacting to a situation. Corrective suggestions, such as telling her what she should feel, aren’t productive. Rather, try to accept what she is feeling. 

4. Assume more responsibilities before an examination. As an examination date approaches, expect your loved one to become distracted by all the “what if” scenarios: What if it’s growing and additional therapy is needed? What if a more invasive intervention affects my quality of life? What if I don’t survive? Don’t try to minimize his anxiety. But don’t feed into it by adding conjecture to his what if scenarios. Instead, take on any responsibilities that could ease his burden, such as house chores or paying bills, to give him more mental energy to deal with the coming appointment.

5. Accept the fear that cancer could return. If the cancer is in remission, your loved one may still live in fear of its return. While you may believe the fear shouldn’t dominate her life, it’s best to acknowledge that your loved one’s fear has significance. Assuring your loved one “there’s nothing to worry about” can appear naively hopeful. Recognize that her fear is real, while reminding her to relish this time of being cancer-free.

lscforthecancerpatientcoverStan Goldberg, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Communicative Disorders at San Francisco State University, and author of the new book, Loving, Supporting, and Caring for the Cancer Patient (Rowman & Littlefield, October 2016). He is a prolific award-winning writer, editorial consultant and recognized expert in the area of cancer support, end-of-life issues, caregiving, chronic illnesses, aging and change.  With more than 300 publications, presentations, workshops and interviews, he garnered 22 national and international awards for his writing. Goldberg was a bedside volunteer at the internationally renowned Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, as well as Hospice By The Bay, George Mark Children’s House and Pathways Home Health and Hospice. Learn more at: stangoldbergwriter.com.