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Dealing with a Loved One’s Breast Cancer Diagnosis

10/19/2017

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A breast cancer diagnosis is never easy, but many people underestimate how challenging it is to deal with a loved one’s diagnosis. If your loved one was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, you may feel overwhelmed by the road ahead.

While there’s no perfect formula for dealing with breast cancer, we have a few expert tips on how to be the best support system, while also taking care of your own mental health, throughout your loved one’s breast cancer treatment.

Effects of Cancer on Loved Ones

People diagnosed with breast cancer are seriously affected, both physically and mentally, by the disease. However, cancer can have a tremendous impact on the entire family.

“For the caregiver, there are several challenges. It can be difficult to take over family duties and employment income that were previously held by the patient,” says DaNisha Blackmon, a licensed social worker at the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute. “It can be difficult to see the loved one have side effects of treatment without being able to ‘fix it.’ If remission is achieved, some have anxiety regarding recurrence.”

The stress of treatment can cause significant strain for family members, especially spouses. Studies have shown spouses of cancer patients often experience the following symptoms:

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety and depression
  • A pervasive sense of helplessness
  • Fears about cancer

The same studies reveal that cancer-related stress is directly correlated between spouses, meaning if a caregiver’s mental health suffers, so will the patient’s. The best thing caregivers can do to lower the stress on their loved ones battling cancer is to manage their own stress and seek help if necessary.

Challenges for Caregivers

Work-related issues. According to Blackmon, navigating insurance, human resources requirements and a full workload can be incredibly difficult and stressful for caregivers. The Family & Medical Leave Act allows patients and family members to take unpaid, job-protected leave with continuation of group health insurance coverage. However, there are many limitations and eligibility requirements that could still make it difficult for you to take time off to care for your loved one during treatment.  

Isolation. Coworkers, friends or family may not understand what you’re going through and could ask hurtful questions or make assumptions about your situation. Cancer treatment can feel isolating, and it can be emotionally exhausting to navigate awkward or hurtful social interactions.

Managing cancer treatment. Of course, a major challenge of cancer treatment is the treatment itself. For loved ones, managing appointments, medication regimens and transportation to and from the doctor can feel like a full-time job. Balancing all of these new responsibilities while still having to maintain your career and caring for your family can be overwhelming.

Asking for help. “Reaching out for support and asking for help can be difficult for some,” says Blackmon. “Sometimes patients and caregivers don’t show their emotions and try to stay strong.” Remember it’s okay to ask for help or seek out other caregivers who may better understand what you’re going through.

What You Should Know About Breast Cancer Treatment

Much of the anxiety that loved ones have following a breast cancer diagnosis results from a fear of the unknown. A lot can happen during treatment to affect the physical, mental, emotional and financial well-being of both the patient and the family. Not knowing what lies ahead can feel upsetting.

While you can’t anticipate every twist and turn of treatment, here are a few important things to keep in mind.

  1. “It is important to remember that statistics aren’t people,” Blackmon says. After being diagnosed, your doctor may give you statistics or odds for a loved one's diagnosis. You may also feel inclined to do your own research on likely outcomes. While these statistics can be helpful in preparing for the road ahead, people beat statistics every day. Take these numbers with a grain of salt, and keep in mind that your loved one is more than just a number and is on a unique journey.
  2. “Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery may or may not be involved in the treatment plan,” Blackmon says. Not all cancers require chemo. Some call for surgery or radiation. Some require all three. There are also a variety of therapies that can be beneficial throughout treatment. INTEGRIS offers integrative cancer therapy at the Troy and Dollie Smith Wellness Center, including acupuncture, massage, yoga, clinical trials, nutrition consultations and counseling. 
  3. Because treatment plans vary from patient to patient, “the cancer patient’s hair may or may not fall out,” says Blackmon. There are a variety of physical changes that can take place during treatment that may affect the self-esteem or self-image of a patient. These physical changes may include hair loss, menstrual changes, swelling, skin changes, weight gain and changes in breasts following surgery.
  4. Treatment plans can change depending on how the cancer reacts to treatment. So, it's good to be prepared for the course of treatment to change when labs are drawn. If at some point you don’t understand the treatment plan, ask your doctor to explain why there was a change in treatment and what the next steps will be.

Finding Support

There are a variety of local opportunities for patients and loved ones to find support throughout breast cancer treatment. Project31 is a local nonprofit that provides support for both breast cancer patients and their families. Founded by two-time breast cancer survivor and Oklahoma City native Sarah McLean, Project31 offers monthly support groups, counseling scholarships and mentoring.

INTEGRIS offers local breast cancer patients and their families holistic services to aid in healing. Contact the Troy and Dollie Smith Wellness Center for more information on support groups and counseling for cancer patients and families.

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