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Strategies for families touched by cancer, from a spiritual perspective

We asked Robin Childs, chaplain at CTCA at Eastern Regional Medical Center in Philadelphia, to offer advice for families who are dealing with a loved one’s cancer diagnosis. Here are his responses:

robin childs

Q: When a loved one (e.g., parent, spouse) gets cancer, it can create a shift in roles. What strategies can family members use to help adjust to the role of caregiver?

There are a lot of little losses that come when a spouse or a parent can no longer be fully who they once were. They may not feel well enough to go out and throw a ball with their children, or take care of household responsibilities.

It’s important for people with cancer to acknowledge the emotional strain involved and to talk with others who can listen and help them discharge the emotions that go with it. It’s also a top priority for caregivers to have trusted friends in their lives who can hear their feelings regularly. The same is true if there are children involved. They will need to have a counselor or a relative who can sit with them and ask how they’re doing. For a married couple, where one of them has cancer, it’s good to have more than just each other to talk with about their feelings.

Q: It can be difficult to know how to support a loved one with cancer, particularly if he/she is feeling depressed. What can family members do to support their loved one during this time?

Here is a quote to think about from a booklet on Healthy Boundaries in Care Giving that I’m writing: “You cannot make someone feel what you want them to feel and think what you want them to think.” We can worry when a loved one with cancer is depressed or down because we’re concerned it affects their immune function, which may be very true. But I think what that person needs most is for someone they love to just be with them in their feelings.

I like to use the analogy of when you’re at the beach and you get caught in a riptide. Life guards will tell you that you shouldn’t fight it; but rather ride it out until it subsides. The same is true when you have a wave of emotion coming at you from a family member. Instead of trying to make them feel differently, ride it out with them. Ask questions about their biggest worry or deepest concerns, and be willing to listen without trying to dissuade them from having those feelings. There is something tremendously cathartic about truly being heard by someone – some evidence even suggests that our immune function may benefit when feelings are dealt with respectfully.

It’s important that the caregiver gets heard as well. Caregivers need someone they can trust and talk to. Whether it is a counselor or a dear friend, they need someone who is willing to be with their pain and anguish in a non-anxious way. I believe you can only do this through a lot of prayer and a lot of good people in your life.

Q: Sometimes conflict develops between family members if one feels they are doing all the work and others aren’t chipping in, or if they disagree about how to handle situations with their loved one. How can family members deal with conflict over caring for a loved one with cancer?

It’s really important to have either a professional or trusted facilitator for the family who has some psychological education. At CTCA, family members can arrange a family meeting with a mind-body therapist or our psychiatrist.  Some may want a pastoral care team member there as well. If there is a healthy family dynamic, it may work to have a private family meeting, although it is best to have a third party present.

What becomes very difficult is when one member of the family moves someone in with them who has cancer. Caregiving is not a one-person job or one-couple job. When you have someone at home with you, you need to have four, five or six people willing to give their time to make it work.

If other family members or friends can’t pitch in and give the caregiver breaks, then the family should look into an inpatient facility, such as a skilled nursing facility, at some point. It won’t work for one person to shoulder the load. There will be a lot of conflict and pain going forward in the family unless it’s handled properly right away.

Q: Cancer can change the way families look at the future. It can cause feelings of frustration or helplessness. How can families look toward the future with hope?

It’s important to know what you’re hoping for. It looks like cancer is in charge, but it’s not. God is in charge. Cancer is not too big an enemy for God to deal with.

There’s a beautiful passage in Isaiah 55: 6-9. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” We have no clue about what needs the Lord would like us to eventually fill in his Kingdom and how those are weighed against the work we do here in this world. It’s not for us to know the answer to this question. That’s God’s job.

What we can all look forward to is trying to do our best to serve God here today. When someone you love has cancer, you can communicate love, walk the journey with them, and pray for them. Let’s not look to the future with hope, let’s gather all our hope, love, courage and joy into being with each other each moment—by staying present. Let the Lord handle what will come.

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