Coping with Cancer
Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells anywhere in a body. These abnormal cells are termed cancer cells, malignant cells, or tumor cells.
There are over 200 types of cancer. The major types of cancer are carcinoma, sarcoma, melanoma, lymphoma, and leukemia.
7 Symptoms & Warning Signs of Cancer
- Change in bowel or bladder habits.
- A sore that does not heal.
- Unusual bleeding or discharge.
- Thickening or lump in the breast or elsewhere.
- Indigestion or difficulty in swallowing.
- Obvious change in a wart or mole.
- Nagging cough or hoarseness.
Stages of Cancer
What does the ‘stages’of cancer mean?
How far cancer has spread in your body is describe as ”stages”, where Stage 0 is the less serious stage and Stage IV the most advanced stage. When you are diagnosed your doctor will tell you what stage you are at.
Why is it important to understand the stages of cancer?
It’s important to understand your cancer stage for several reasons:
- Treatment: It helps your doctor decide which treatment will work best. An early-stage cancer may call for surgery while an advanced-stage cancer may need chemotherapy.
- Outlook: Your recovery will depend in part on how early the cancer is found. Your stage gives you an idea of your possible outcomes.
- Research: Most hospitals work with a national database that keeps track of which treatments are used and how well they work. Researchers can compare similar cases to find the most effective treatments.
- Stage 0 means there’s no cancer, only abnormal cells with the potential to become cancer. This is also called carcinoma in situ (CIS). (CIS is a group of abnormal cells that are found only in the place where they first formed in the body)
- Stage I means the cancer is small and only in one area. This is also called early-stage cancer.
- Stage II and III mean the cancer is larger and has grown into nearby tissues or lymph nodes.
- Stage IV means the cancer has spread to other parts of your body. It’s also called advanced or metastatic cancer.
What choices of care is available to cancer patients?
The choices of care depend on the type of cancer, stage of the cancer and the patients goals for care. Basic options include:
Clinical trials – a patient with advanced cancer may be offered the option to participate in early phase clinical trials, which is designed to look at safety of new treatments and their safe use. Some patients join trials in the hope that the treatment will slow the growth of the cancer or that the trial might eventually benefit future patients. The risks of trials must be explained fully to a patient.
Palliative treatment – the aim of this is to reduce pain and help a patient to feel more comfortable. An example would be the removal of a tumor that is pressing on certain nerves and causing pain.
Hospice care – the aim of hospice care is to help patients live each day fully and as symptom free as possible. It doesn’t mean you gave up on life. It just means treatment goals are different. Services from hospice care may include nursing care, doctor’s services, medicine for pain management and symptom relief, counseling, grief counseling, spiritual care and social work services.
Home care – is for patients who prefer to be treated and cared for at home. This may include cancer treatment and palliative care.
How do I cope with cancer?
Finding out you have cancer comes as a shock to anyone. We have learnt to associate cancer with impending death and you may experience feelings of fear, uncertainty, denial, anger, guilt, stress, anxiety, loneliness, isolation, sadness and depression. It’s also normal to feel hope, relief, surprise, acceptance and determination. You may feel any or all of these emotions at some time or another.
It is important to recognize these emotions and not to hide or ignore them. Talk about your feelings and fears with your doctor, therapist, family members or pastor. Ignoring difficult emotions only allows them to become stronger and more overwhelming. Your journey with cancer includes treatments and follow-up tests – which may temporarily increase fear and anxiety at specific times.
If you can join a support group for patients with your specific cancer, do so. It helps to share what you experience with people who went through the same thing. They also allow you to exchange practical information and helpful suggestions. The group experience often creates a sense of belonging that helps survivors feel less alone and more understood.
Read up and learn as much as you can about the cancer you have. Most cancers have a predictable pattern of recurrence. But no one can tell you exactly what will happen in the future. Knowing what to expect may help you stop worrying that every ache or pain means the cancer has returned.
Ask about pain. You do not have to be in pain or discomfort from symptoms caused by the cancer. Talk to your doctor and health care team about how you feel. It is okay to say you are in pain and to take medicine for it. A pain free person can focus on enjoying the time they have left. A person in severe pain may be more fatigued, grumpy and might isolate themselves more from activities around them.
It can be hard for me as a doctor, because many times I see patients who want to know everything. And then I have caregivers who don’t want me to tell the patient everything. Yet the reality is they know their bodies – so they know what’s going on. So sometimes I get a situation where everyone knows the truth but tries to keep it from the other person to protect them – Dr Crawford
- What’s the best we can hope for by trying another treatment?
- Is this treatment meant to ease side effects or slow the spread of cancer?
- Is there a chance that a new treatment will be found while we try the old one?
- What are the possible side effects and other downsides of the treatment? How
likely are they?
- Are the possible rewards bigger than the possible drawbacks?
Asking these questions may help the patient decide whether to continue or begin more treatment. It’s best to work together on this process. It will help you figure out both of your needs and the needs of others close to you.
How do you know when you need more help?
- Worry or anxiety is out of control and influences your life negatively.
- Feeling hopeless about the future
- Having trouble sleeping or eating well
- Not participating in activities you used to enjoy
- Having trouble concentrating or making decisions
- Feeling that you have nothing to look forward to
- Being unusually forgetful
How do I cope with chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses one or more anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells to stop the cancer from growing or spreading. It affects everyone differently. The most common side effects of chemotherapy includes
- nausea, loss of appetite
- diarrhea or constipation
- mouth & throat sores
- hair loss
- nails going black and falling off
Plan ahead: A chemotherapy session may take only a few hours, but you might have side effects for days or weeks afterward.
- Ask someone to drive you to and from treatments.
- Talk with your employer. You might need time off work after a chemo session.
- Clear your schedule. Don’t plan to go to any events or do activities in the hours after chemo.
- Arrange for help with meals and child care. It might be tough to cook dinner or take care of the kids if you’re dealing with side effects like fatigue or nausea.
- Plan how to handle waste if you are nauseous or have diarrhea after chemotherapy. This includes soiled linens and clothes.
You might find this booklet helpful if you or someone near you is getting chemotherapy.
How do I support a loved one with cancer?
LISTEN. Without judging or taking over the conversation. Just to sit and listen is probably one of the most significant contributions you can make to your loved one’s well-being.
GIVE ADVICE ONLY WHEN ASKED. It can be helpful to the person, but most of the time the amount of advice people offer is totally overwhelming. Don’t say, “You ought to try this” or “You should do that.” Instead, let your loved one know you’ve done research and allow your loved one to decide if they want to know more.
EDUCATE YOURSELF ABOUT THE CANCER. It helps to know what to expect. Doctors often do not describe the details of the cancer journey – patients and loved ones will find value in learning how this usually plays out themselves. It is important for patients and their family members to understand that if they choose not to do chemo or some other aggressive therapy, there are other options where they will receive support, comfort care, and assistance from the health care team.
SUPPORT YOUR LOVED ONE’S TREATMENT DECISIONS. While you may be in a position to share decision-making, ultimately it is your loved one’s body and spirit that bear the impact of the cancer. There may also come a time when you have to make decisions for your loved one because he can’t anymore. It’s important to get a sense of how he feels about this before it happens. How would he like to deal with it?
SUPPORT THE PERSON WHO CARES FOR THE PATIENT. The spouse, partner, parent or adult child of the person with cancer now perform additional roles with which they might appreciate help for example driving, food preparation, care for the patient, hospital visits and many more.
KEEP CONTACT CONSISTENTLY. A journey with cancer is usually a lengthy one and people with cancer often note that friends and family “don’t call anymore” after the initial crisis of diagnosis. Checking in regularly over the long haul is both tremendously helpful and very meaningful for the person living with cancer.
TRY TO KEEP LIFE NORMAL. For some people, being able to do things like cook dinner or continue working can lessen the sense that cancer is taking over their lives. Your loved one may not want to discuss their cancer and it might be helpful to make conversation that doesn’t involve their diagnosis. Keep a balance with visitors. A cancer patient usually feels fatigued and needs enough rest.
STILL BE THERE WHEN TREATMENT IS OVER. This is often the time when people begin to process the enormity of what they have been through. While your loved one may no longer need help getting through treatment, they may still need your emotional support.
BE THERE. Think about how you’ve helped each other feel better during a difficult time in the past. This could be something as simple as sitting with your loved one during treatments. Do whatever works for you both, and don’t be afraid to try something new.
How do I cope when finding out a loved one has cancer?
It is normal to experience a range of emotions that are similar to grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and ultimately acceptance. Allow yourself to feel the difficult emotions and process the trauma of the diagnosis on your own. If you fall apart, you cannot be of help to the patient. Once you are calm, it is important to stay calm to be able to assist and support your loved one on their journey.
Focus on facts , not on fear.
To be positive in every way is a crucial aspect of coping and combating cancer. You might be overwhelmed about what you read and hear via the internet or friends, but remember everyone persons’s journey is different.
Accompany the patient when they have a doctor’s appointment.
It is very comforting to have someone at your side and not to have to face difficult times alone. It’s your job to listen, take notes, ask pertinent questions, organize paperwork, and help the patient stay as calm as possible.
Ask questions and stay informed
Learn what you can about the cancer. If in doubt – ask the doctor or therapist. It is important to “take it one step at a time, try to remain grounded in the present and not jump to the future.”
Listen much more than you talk. Without judgement or interference.
Support their decisions
What ever the decide about their journey with cancer or treatment – it is their life and their choice. Respect their decisions.
Ask how you can support them
Don’t make assumptions or take over. Ask how you can help and support. Typically most patients do not want to be viewed as a burden. It is good for their self-worth to keep independence as long as possible. Discuss ways of how you can assist.
Cancer affects the whole family
Talking to Children About Death
Children deserve to be told the truth about a poor prognosis. Hiding the truth from them leaves them unprepared for the loved one’s death and can prolong the grief they will feel. And if you don’t talk about the loved one’s condition or don’t tell the truth about it, you risk your children having difficulty trusting others when they grow up. By including children in the family crisis, you can guide your children toward healthy ways of coping with what is happening and help them prepare for their impending loss in healing ways.
Children of all ages may wonder about dying, life after death, and what happens to the body. It’s important to answer all their questions. If not, they may imagine things that are worse than reality. Let them know that everything is being done to keep their loved one comfortable. Tell them that you will keep them updated. And provide opportunities for them to say good-bye.
Get and accept help
Many people want to help, but have no idea whether you need or want help. Thinking back, many caregivers wish they asked for help sooner, because they took on to much themselves.
You have to learn that if people offer, let them do something. Tell them what you need to have done, because they don’t know. You have to be willing to let go of your pride and let them help you. -Lynn
Accepting help from others isn’t always easy. People tend to rather pull away when they are facing tough times. You may remind others that you still need help.
I have been the main caregiver for the whole time. At first we had emotional support from the church and friends and so on, but over time they just faded off. Ii have been stressed beyond belief. – Marion
How can others help you? Here are a few ideas:
- Help with household chores – from swimming pool backwash to laundry.
- Listen when you talk and share your feelings
- Help drive your loved to and from appointments
- Picking up kids from school.
- Pick up prescription groceries.
- Prepare a meal for the family
What do you need to plan for if a loved one is dying?
- Finances – who will be the legal power of attorney
- Coping with work issues
- Living arrangements for patient who lives alone
- Living arrangements for a partner that stays behind.
- Wishes the patient have for when the time comes that communication is impossible
- Wishes for burial
- The patient’s last will and testament.
- Insurance issues must be cleared up.
- Make a list of all important papers and original documents and where to find them.
A worksheet of personal affairs is on page 48 of the following document
Signs that death is near and what you can do
- Person is drowsy, sleep more and is becoming more unresponsive.
- Becomes confused about time and place / or do not recognize family members
- Become more withdrawn
- Less need for food or liquids
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
- dark urine or decreased amount or urine
- skin becomes cold to the touch or bluish in color
- Irregular breathing – slow, shallow, and at times long periods between breaths.
Stay with the patient. Be calm. You can talk softly to reassure him/her of your presence. You can hold their hand or wipe their forehead with a cool cloth. Make sure the person is pain free. Curb noise around the room and limit visitors by letting in one or two people at a time. Some patients loose consciousness and can no longer eat, drink or communicate. Make sure the person is kept dry and comfortable (for example keep their lips moist with a lip balm, turn them to the side every four hours, check if they are dry. Please note that although the patients skin feel cool, he/she is probably not aware of being cold. You may close the eyes of the patient if they stop blinking). The person might still be able to hear you. They seem to float between this world and the next world and might even smile now and then. Keep lighting in the room soft. You may turn the patients head towards a light source and you may tell the patient it is okay to let go.
Grief after cancer death
Loss is experienced by people differently – some make peace quickly, others get stuck in grief for years.
The emotions people battle with are feelings of guilt, hopelessness, sadness or worry about the future, anger, anxiety or depression and intense grief. Understand that all these feelings are normal.
It is important to acknowledge your feelings and allow yourself to grief in your own way. Sometimes the loss of a loved one triggers more losses that you have experienced during your life time. There is no right way to grief – some people throw themselves into work, others just freeze up and stay for awhile. But eventually we move through the grief with or without help and we carry on with life.
Suggestions to move through grief:
- Talk about it – tell people around you who care how you feel. Talk about the journey you were on. The ups and the downs of the journey. It is okay to say when asked how you are doing, that you are not fine.
- Find something everyday you are thankful for. Start new. Each new moment and new day gives you the chance to try again.
- Keep a journal about your feelings. It can help to relieve negative thoughts and feelings.
- Let yourself laugh. It is still the best antidote for depression.
- Connect with other people. Isolation causes depression.
- Let go of mistakes. No one is perfect. Forgive yourself and others. Get some rest.
- Join a support group, if you are the type of person the don’t mind sharing feelings with others – in person, or by phone or via social media. It helps to share your experience and get advice from people who went through exactly the same.
- Take care of yourself – take a nap, do some exercise, try a hobby, go on a road trip, see a movie, buy yourself something new, treat yourself with a haircut.