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9 Steps for Coping When a Loved One Has Cancer


This article was written by Karen Nimmo, a clinical psychologist specializing in health and wellbeing.

Today I woke to an email from a young woman I worked with a few years back: Hi Karen, I’ve just been diagnosed with metastasized melanoma. My husband’s not coping too well. How can I help him?

Within the same message, she took time to ask about me, even how my work was going, pushing aside her own emotional pain and fear to consider her partner’s needs. She sounded strong and brave and optimistic.

But I felt a jag of shock, of worry  — for both of them.

Cancer is a tumultuous journey. Like any serious illness, it doesn’t just affect the person at the core of it. It spreads and snakes through families, testing partners, children, parents, siblings, friendships — anyone in its path. A few years back, my family was in the same position. My husband, who’d had a sore back, was suddenly diagnosed with stage-four lymphoma: it was in his stomach and back with hotspots just about everywhere else. He couldn’t walk and the prognosis was bleak.

It felt like someone had taken a jackhammer to a vase in my lounge and I had to pick up all the broken glass, without bleeding all over the floor. What to do? How to cope? How to keep the mental ghosts at bay?

It’s a mind game, too.

The medical profession has yet to fully acknowledge the psychological damage cancer inflicts: the dark thoughts and feelings, the roller coaster emotions, the fear that jabs at you in the middle of the night.

Doctors go after cancer physically  —  with scalpels and drugs and radioactive beams. While such treatment can save lives, it’s not enough if you want to survive the emotional turmoil as well as the march of the mutant blood cells. While we were well looked after medically, the rest was up to us. There was no road map to help us make sense of our cancer experience, to shine a light on the way forward, to help us help our kids, to keep our thinking straight and our minds in the game. So we designed one ourselves; as a psychologist I unashamedly stole from various clinical models of treatment, from my clients’ experiences, research, books, other people’s stories, and good old common sense.

A Road Map for Cancer

Based on a journal I kept during the worst of Kev’s illness, I wrote a book: Fish Pie Is Worse Than Cancer; partly for my own therapy, partly to pass on all we learned  —  some of it the hard way. For my young friend, her partner, and anyone else in the throws of such a struggle, here’s an excerpt sharing some of the tips people going through cancer have found most useful.

1. Mobilize.

Mind, body and spirit have to move in the same direction. A cancer diagnosis can make you freeze, shut down, which gives cancer a head start. Instead, move quickly. Sketch a written plan. If you can’t think straight, or you are too shocked to make a plan, just do one practical thing to get things started.

2. Lie when people ask how you are.

OK, don’t lie  —  but keep it brief. Unless they are health professionals or loved ones, people don’t need all the details of your disease or the truth of how you are feeling. The more you repeat those details, the more you will stay in the cancer zone. Answer as brightly and positively as you can. It will help keep your own thinking straight.

3. Get up and get dressed.

Shave or apply makeup if that’s what you would normally do. Pajamas and gowns are for the ill and dying. As often as you can, put your clothes on. Without exhausting yourself, do normal things: work, cook, shop, see friends.

4. Stay connected.

Don’t step out of the world; stay connected to it and the people in it. Plan to do something else on chemo or treatment days  —  it helps to remind you there is life during and beyond cancer.

5. Structure your days.

Make a plan for your day the night before (write down five simple things you plan to do the next day) and when the day starts begin with your plan  —  no matter how you feel. Do not wake up not having a clue what the day will hold. The dark part of your mind will play tricks on you.

6. Remember the pros.

Write a list of all the things you have to be grateful for during this time. If this is too difficult or seems too big, just write down three things every evening. Do it every day; it’ll help balance your negative thoughts, contain your fears, and keep you thinking clearly.

7. Treat yourself.

This one is especially for partners and primary caregivers. Look after your own health and wellbeing. You are the most important person/s on the team.

8. Celebrate.

Even when things are tough, there are always tiny things that can be celebrated. Look for them and get your support team to help.

9. Practice acceptance.

Of cancer and all that it brings with it. Of the loss of what you had. Of the changes in your world. This can be a hard place to get to but keep trying. It will bring you peace.

This post originally appeared on Medium and was written by Karen Nimmo, a clinical psychologist specializing in health and wellbeing. If you’d like to read more of Nimmo’s book, Fish Pie Is Worse Than Cancer: a true story of love, hope and rat-like cunning, it’s available on Amazon.

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