If Your Loved One has Terminal Cancer: Four Keys to Help Partners Survive the Ordeal
Sherry Cormier, PhD
Having a loved one diagnosed with end-stage cancer is frightening. I know this firsthand: I was a caregiver to the love of my life who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was an excruciating journey. But four strategies helped me cope, learn and find wholeness from brokenness.
Here are four keys to surviving the ordeal – especially for partners and caregivers:
Get ready for an intense ride of ups and downs
I’ve compared the cancer journey to a rollercoaster ride. Someone once told me that living with cancer was either a marathon or a sprint. When cancer is a chronic condition, it’s a marathon. In our case, it was a sprint. In every case, it tests your stamina.
The best way to deal with the ride is to work on becoming flexible. As someone who values structure and planning, I had to learn how to go with the flow. Try yoga, since increasing flexibility in the body simultaneously encourages it in the mind. Consider mindfulness meditation: staying in the present, without drifting to the past or future, helps you become at ease with every change and maintain equanimity, regardless of the disease’s pace or progression.
Be prepared for bad moods — chemo’s dirty little secret.
Most cancer treatment centers do an outstanding job explaining and helping with the physiological side effects of chemotherapy. There are drugs for nausea, interrupted sleep patterns, low white blood cell counts, and other issues. I was well-schooled in these side effects, but totally caught off guard by the emotional side effects. As treatments increased, a darker side of my partner’s personality emerged. His irrepressible humor and equanimity gave way to sarcasm and swearing.
One difficult morning, I called the cancer center to share my concerns. The nurse said, “I’m so sorry. We hear this all the time from family members.” While it was great to know that I wasn’t alone, I wondered — especially as a psychologist — why there wasn’t more emphasis on what I call chemo’s dirty little secret. When you are living with someone getting strong chemo, expect their periodic mood swings, and don’t personalize it. It really isn’t about you. Don’t lose sight of the cancer patient’s healthy, loving personality. These bad moods aren’t the new forever, just the toxins of the drugs talking.
Communicate liberally with your loved ones.
During terminal cancer, so much is occurring simultaneously with your loved one, often at a dizzying pace — scans, tests, doctor visits, hospital stays, emergencies, side effects and countless issues. There’s precious little time to focus on yourself. But if there’s any silver lining to this terrible illness, it’s that you have the opportunity to prepare for potential outcomes and tell your loved one what’s in your heart. This is not the time to shut down communication with your loved one or your family and friends. Even though you may feel overwhelmed with stress,
making sure you create time to have heartfelt talks with your loved ones and your support system is crucial for everyone’s well-being.
Reject a victim mentality and embrace empowerment.
Nothing about cancer is fair, and everything about cancer is disruptive. When you’re young, as I was, facing widowhood and dashed dreams, it’s easy to feel like a victim. Whatever your age, it’s also easy to become so discouraged during the cancer journey that you feel like a victim, lamenting, “Why is this happening to me?” But some spiritual teachers suggest that it is better to ask, “What am I learning from this?” and “What is this situation teaching me?” For many of us, the ordeal teaches us about impermanence and acceptance. Nothing ever stays the same, despite the best-laid plans. We can resist these changes and wallow in self-pity or accept what is happening with as much grace as possible — and feel empowered rather than helpless as we move toward growth.
Sherry Cormier, PhD is a licensed psychologist, certified bereavement trauma specialist, author, and public speaker.