When Cancer Changes You and Your Relationships, For Better or Worse
Posted: June 16, 2022
There’s a quote that says, “Cancer cannot cripple love, it cannot shatter hope, it cannot conquer the spirit.” Most people who have been diagnosed with cancer know that’s a load of B.S.
Cancer is powerful, and suffering is deafening. It can destroy relationships, leave us hopeless, and find us wallowing in the worst mental state of our lives. We get it (and toxic positivity doesn’t).
Changes in relationships are normal with or without a cancer diagnosis. But when that phrase, “You have cancer,” hits you or a loved one, things shift (for better or worse). Let’s talk about it.
The emotions of a cancer experience are complex.
Cancer thrivers, caregivers, and supporters alike will experience various stages of emotions. You’ll see the stages of grief in some capacity: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
This changes you.
“Suffering can make you selfish, turn you cruel. It can make you feel like there is nothing but you and your anger, the crackle of exam table paper beneath bruised limbs, the way your heart pounds into your mouth when the doctor enters the room with the latest biopsy results. But I wasn’t the only one whose life had been interrupted by illness; my loved ones all faced a rupture that was similar in kind, if not in degree. That I wasn’t the only one in the room meant I was one of the lucky ones, I knew." -Suleika Jaouad, Between Two Kingdoms.
Changes in emotions are generally a sign that needs aren’t being met.
Remember that your feelings won’t always align with how others process. Your caregiver may be angry and bargaining with medical staff, “How could this be?!” while you are in a state of fear and anxiety.
Your feelings are valid. So are those of others.
Whichever side of the exam table you’re on, it’s important to empathize with how someone’s emotions and experience may be different than yours.
Supporters: check out this article, “Understanding The Mindset Of Someone In Cancer Treatment.”
Everyone involved in a cancer diagnosis may be grieving their “old” life.
Unaddressed emotions can sever relationships.
The tension with friends and family from a cancer diagnosis can be intense at various points in your experience. Many times, people won’t know how to react, respond, or help. They may not understand the increased demands on your body and schedule, leading to scrutiny.
So-called supporters aren’t the only confused ones. Cancer thrivers and primary caregivers don’t always know what they need when it is a new experience.
Not all hope is lost, though. Facing a cancer diagnosis together can sometimes strengthen a relationship.
Here’s what thrivers and caregivers can do to help protect their energy and relationships during times of suffering.
Communicate and set (or manage) expectations.
Be honest about how you feel with your support squad. If you’re going through treatment, people will be walking on eggshells anyway with how they respond to your updates.
Communicating your needs and expectations is essential in keeping enriching relationships. This could be as simple as saying:
“I’m having a really hard time processing that my chemo is starting next week. It would be helpful if you wouldn’t bring up the family party I’ll miss. I’d rather have some distraction from the FOMO, like send me funny Instagram memes or come over for a movie night.”
In this example, there’s a declaration of feelings, the “why” behind them (or the trigger), and a boundary or action step for the other person.