Caring Currents

How to Care for Someone Who Has Cancer - AND a Negative Attitude

Last updated: Jun 12, 2009

Reunion Day

The first conversation I had about this took place in the hall outside the chemo room - and was conducted in whispers. I had stepped outside to take a few deep breaths, because it was so hard to see my friend discouraged and in pain, and I didn't know how to help. Another woman approached me; I'd heard her husband dressing down the nurses and fretting about how they were putting the IV in wrong. She said he was constantly complaining and talking about stopping chemo and giving up on treatment and she didn't know how to encourage him any more. She was frustrated and discouraged herself. But mainly she was exhausted from trying to be his "champion" when it was beginning to seem like he didn't have the will to champion himself.

How do we handle all the fear, anger, sadness, and discouragement that often come with a cancer diagnosis? How do we take care of those we love, cheer them on, care for them, keep them on track with their treatment, when they themselves are on the verge of giving up?

First off, it's important to realize that depression and cancer often go hand in hand. Depression often starts with a "trigger," and what bigger trigger is there than having death staring you in the face? If you feel that the person your caring for is struggling with depression, it's important to talk about it. It's also important to talk to his doctor about it, if he's unwilling to do so himself. Depression is treatable, and many experts believe that taking a low dose of antidepressants can help with many of the other problems that accompany cancer, such as anxiety and insomnia. In some cases, a doctor can even prescribe an antidepressant without directly saying to the cancer patient, "you have depression" if it's a touchy subject. So do try to get some help; you'll be glad you did later, even if it's hard to broach in the moment.

Second, take care of yourself and pay attention to the stress you're under. A certain amount of negativity, sorrow, and plain old grumpiness is pretty much par for the course for anyone dealing with cancer. The course of cancer treatment frequently involves so many ups and downs that there are bound to be days when discouragement takes over. But since you're the one tasked with "cheering up" the patient and keeping things moving along, the stress can be enormous. And that stress, in turn, can trigger depression in caregivers, as well. Get out when you can and meet up with folks who can cheer you up - you need a chance to unload and recharge too.

Last, try at all costs to avoid guilt. It's horrible to see a loved one in a painful situation, and you naturally want to do all you can to relieve his suffering. But nothing that's happened is your fault. And guilt is what many experts call a "toxic" emotion -- it does absolutely no good and just compounds all the bad stuff. A mantra that's gotten me through many difficult caregiving situations: "I'm doing the best I can." Try it: Not only does it make you feel much better -- it's the truth.