How to help your family cope with the stress of a cancer diagnosis


by Baylor Scott & White Health

Jun 7, 2022

A cancer diagnosis can turn your family’s entire world upside down. With cancer often comes a boatload of stress—and not just for you. Family and friends often experience varying levels of distress, anxiety and depression.  They may also feel guilty that they aren’t sick or hopeless because they don’t know how to help.

“Cancer not only puts a physical strain on the individual with cancer, but it also puts an emotional strain on both patients and their families,” said Jamile Ashmore, PhD, medical director of the division of medical psychology at Baylor Scott & White The Heart Hospital – Plano.

Psychological stress associated with a cancer diagnosis and treatment can lead to poorer quality of life, poor health behaviors, and compromise the immune system, affecting survival or recurrence.

So, what’s the good news? Anticipating how cancer may impact your family circle can help you navigate this challenging time and keep your mental health strong during your cancer journey.

Expect changing roles

A cancer diagnosis can feel overwhelming as you and those close to you deal with the stress of the diagnosis and the physically challenging treatments.

The dynamics within your family will also naturally shift as others take on caregiving, juggle childrearing and money matters and adjust to new daily responsibilities like grocery shopping, carpool and household chores.

These lifestyle changes can be emotionally complex. It’s crucial you talk openly to your partner, children, parents and other family members to avoid feelings of frustration and resentment and minimize the stress levels that come with worrying about them.

Your loved ones may not want to upset you, so don’t be afraid to take the lead in these conversations.

Do what you can

The feelings of a loss of control over your life are also common. Take it back when and where you can. Keep up with your regular routine, spend time with friends, and take time for yourself as much as you are able.

Research shows exercise before, during and after treatment can help ease treatment side effects and enhance your overall quality of life. Among the documented benefits:

  • Reduced depression and anxiety
  • Less pain
  • More energy

Make sure to check with your doctor before you start any exercise program.

Don’t forget to ask for help

When you are facing a cancer diagnosis, everyone will want to help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Family and friends may be unsure of how they can support you. There are so many ways others can help. Among them:

  • Support with practical tasks like laundry, meals and errands
  • Accompanying you to appointments to take notes
  • Serving as the point person to share updates on your health

Seek support throughout your cancer diagnosis and beyond

Finding support at every step of the cancer journey can go a long way in helping you and your family cope.

“Appropriate support and psychological intervention are often vital to help cancer patients overcome any emotional stressors that they experience during and after their treatment, so they can heal both physically and mentally,” Dr. Ashmore said. “Having a group of people to help and support you along your journey really does help in counteracting many of the stressors cancer patients experience.”

In addition to family members and friends, you can find relief from counseling or simply interacting with other cancer patients through formal support groups and networks.

Your doctors or a patient navigator on staff at Baylor Scott & White can help determine which program works best based on your needs. That compassionate care and support doesn’t end when you ring that bell, either. You can benefit from cancer support services well into your survivorship journey.

“The scientific data clearly support the positive impact of psychological and behavioral programs on improving emotional distress, health behaviors, immune functioning, and ultimately survival among those suffering from chronic illnesses such as cancer,” Dr. Ashmore said.

Remember, you don’t have to face this journey alone. Find more resources on cancer care and support today.

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