How can I comfort my mother when she feels distressed about losing her hair?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother is losing her hair after chemotherapy for lung cancer, and she's very distressed about it. I think she still looks great, but when I try to reassure her, she just gets more upset -- even angry. What can I say or do to make her feel better?

Expert Answer

Jeffrey Knajdl is director of psycho-oncology services in the Cancer Counseling program at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.

Sometimes it's not what you say to your mother, but what you let her say. She's going through something really major, and she's sad, worried, and upset. It's hard for you to see her distressed, so naturally you try to make her feel better. But you're stuck, because when you say "You look great" or "It's all going to be okay," she feels like you don't understand how hard this is for her. When you're trying to be supportive, it can feel to her like you're demanding a positive attitude from her, which is frustrating. Think about how you feel when someone says "cheer up" when you feel down -- nothing's more irritating!

Just try listening to her. Tell her you really want to hear and understand how she's feeling. Let her know she can say anything she needs to without feeling shut down.

Hair loss is a much more emotional issue than anyone realizes. Both the patient and the caregiver are always caught off guard by how upsetting it is. When she gets angry, try hearing her cries of anger as cries of fear. It can be really frightening for cancer patients when they feel out of control over what's happening to their bodies. And she's afraid of letting you down, too, by not being brave or stoic enough. Tell her that whatever she's thinking or feeling, it's okay, and that she doesn't need to put on a brave face for you. One of cancer patients' biggest fears is that they'll have to go through this experience alone, so make sure she knows that you'll be there every step of the way.