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When Cancer Returns

  • Updated: 07/13/2011

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Family and Friends

Family Meetings
People Close to You
Spouses and Partners
Children
Teenagers
Adult Children

Your loved ones may need time to adjust to the news that your cancer has returned. They need to come to terms with their own feelings. These may include confusion, shock, helplessness, anger, and other feelings.

Let family members and friends know that they can offer comfort just by:

  • Being themselves
  • Listening and not trying to solve problems
  • Being at ease with you.

Knowing that they are able to comfort you may help them cope with their feelings.

Bear in mind that not everyone can handle the return of cancer. Sometimes a friend or family member can't face the idea that you might not get better. Some people may not know what to say or do for you. As a result, relationships may change, but not because of you. They may change because others can't cope with their own feelings and pain. If you can, remind your loved ones that you are still the same person you always were. Let them know if it's all right to ask questions or tell you how they feel. Sometimes just reminding them to be there for you is enough.

It's also okay if you don't feel comfortable talking about your cancer. Some topics are hard to talk about with people you are close to. In this case, you may want to talk with a member of your health care team or a trained counselor. You might want to attend a support group where people meet to share common concerns.

"My father and I are so much closer. It's a totally different family than we were before I was diagnosed. We've learned how to talk about how we feel, how to talk to each other about what's going on and what we're afraid of." - Charles

Family Meetings

Some families have trouble expressing their needs to each other. Other families simply do not get along. If you don't feel comfortable talking with family members, ask a member of your health care team to help. You could also ask a social worker or other professional to hold a family meeting. This may help family members feel that they can safely express their feelings. It can also be a time for you and your family to meet with your entire health care team to solve problems and set goals. Although it can be very hard to talk about these things, studies show that cancer care is a smoother process when everyone remains open and talks about the issues.

People Close to You

Often, talking with someone close to you is harder than talking with anyone else. Here's some advice on talking with loved ones during tough times.

Spouses and Partners

  • Try as much as you can to keep your relationship as it was before you got sick.
  • Talk things over. This may be hard for you or your spouse or partner. If so, ask a counselor or social worker to talk with both of you together.
  • Be realistic about demands. Your spouse or partner may feel guilty about your illness. They may feel guilty about any time spent away from you. They also may be under stress due to changing family roles.
  • Spend some time apart. Your spouse or partner needs time to address their own needs. If these needs are neglected, your loved one may have less energy and support to give. Remember, you didn't spend 24 hours a day together before you got sick.
  • Body changes and emotional concerns may affect your sex life. Talking openly and honestly is key. But if you can't talk about these issues, you might want to talk with a professional. Don't be afraid to seek help or advice if you need it.

Children

Keeping your children's trust is very important at this time. Children can sense when things are wrong. So it's best to be as open as you can about your cancer. They may worry that they did something to cause the cancer. They may be afraid that no one will take care of them. They may also feel that you are not spending as much time with them as you used to. Although you can't protect them from what they might feel, you can prepare them for these feelings.

"My illness became a vehicle for teaching my children lessons I'd want to teach them if I'd never been sick. Instead of fighting or trying to hide all the challenges, I used them to teach my kids the value of delayed gratification, how to find hope when the chips are down, that you are the same person inside even if your appearance changes, and that you try your best and forgive yourself if things don't go well. My treatments became a powerful way to say to my children, 'I love you and will do whatever I must to be with you.'" - Wendy Harpham, M.D., author of When a Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children

Some children become clingy. Others get into trouble at school or at home. It helps to keep the lines of communication open. Try to:

  • Be honest. Tell them you are sick and that the doctors are working to make you better.
  • Let them know that nothing they did or said caused the cancer. And make sure that they know that they can't catch it from you.
  • Reassure them that you love them.
  • Encourage them to talk about their feelings.
  • Tell them it's okay to be upset, angry, or scared.
  • Be clear and simple when you talk, since children can focus only briefly. Use words they can understand.
  • Let them know they will be taken care of and loved.
  • Let them know that it's okay to ask questions. Tell them that you will answer them as honestly as you can. In fact, children who aren't told the truth about an illness can become even more scared. They often depend on their imagination and fears to explain the changes around them.

Teenagers

Teenagers have some of the same needs as those of younger children. They need to hear the truth about an illness. This helps keep them from feeling needless guilt and stress. But be aware that they may try to avoid the subject. They may become angry, act out, or get into trouble as a way of coping. Others simply withdraw. Try to:

  • Give them the space they need. This is especially important if you are relying on them more to help with family needs.
  • Give them time to deal with their feelings, alone or with friends.
  • Let them know that they should still go to school and take part in sports and other fun activities.

If you have trouble explaining your cancer, you might want to ask for help. A close friend, relative, healthcare worker, or trusted coach or teacher could help answer your teenager's questions. Your support group, social worker, or doctor can also help you find a counselor or psychologist.

"It's a roller coaster ride, so we just ride the roller coaster. I've got the whole family prepared, and that's what you have to do when you have cancer. Things are going well one minute, but you never know when they're going to change.." - Gwen

Adult Children

Your relationship with your adult children may change now that you have cancer again. You may have to rely on them more. And it may be hard for you to ask for support. After all, you may be used to giving support rather than getting it.

Adult children have their concerns, too. They may start to think about their own mortality. They may feel guilt, because of the many demands on them as parents, children, and employees. Some may live far away or have other duties. They may feel bad that they can't spend as much time with you as they would like. Often it helps to:

  • Share decision-making with your children.
  • Involve them in issues that are important to you. These may include treatment choices, plans for the future, or activities that you want to continue.
  • If they aren't able to be there with you, keep them updated on your progress.
  • Make the most of the time you have. Share your feelings with them.

Try to reach out to your adult children. Openly sharing your feelings, goals, and wishes will help them adjust. It will also help prevent problems in the future. Remember, just as parents want the best for their children, children want the best for their parents. They want to see your needs met effectively and with compassion. Your children don't want to see you suffer.