By Corrina Cameron
Cancer patients must often be strong for everyone else around them. Not only is a cancer diagnosis scary for the patient, it’s also frightening for immediate family and friends. Understandably, this is a difficult time for everyone. They love the cancer patient so much that imagining a life without them is a devastating thought. Sadly, this means that they may lean on the cancer patient for support, or retreat, unable to provide the support the patient needs.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, my family and friends all dealt with it differently, and very few of them dealt with it positively all the time. There were angry outbursts, random bouts of tears, silences, distance, pity, fear, frustration, anxiety, depression, and lots of pain. As I came to recognize that my family and friends were reacting negatively to my diagnosis, two main emotions took over me: loneliness and guilt.
Loneliness seems to be a common emotion for young adults diagnosed with cancer. There are many reasons for this, but one stems from these negative emotions others have about your diagnosis. Many of my family and friends didn’t react well, so it seemed unwise and unfair to talk to them about how I was truly feeling. This inability to share my anxieties with them for fear of “breaking” them made me feel incredibly alone. No one really knew how I was doing, so no one really knew me.
I also felt that I needed to be strong for my family and friends. Making jokes, listening to their problems, respecting their wishes not to mention the “c” word, and refusing to cry in front of others were some of the ways I chose to show strength and support for them during this difficult time. I chose to hide how I felt and did what I could to make them feel better. It was actually an elaborate act, because in reality I did not feel strong at all. This fake persona of strength also added to the loneliness. Since everyone had interpreted this guise as true, they assumed I was fine and never asked how things really were. And so the loneliness cycle had begun. They did not know, and I did not tell them.
The other main emotion is guilt. I felt so guilty for causing all this pain for others. Each time someone would burst into tears or show other signs of depression because of my diagnosis, I took the blame upon myself. “I did this. It’s my fault,” I would think, and took the responsibility of their emotions on my shoulders. What an incredible weight it was.
I carried this weight of guilt — alone — for many years. It wasn’t until this past year during my first session with my psychologist that she exposed the incredible amount of guilt I was carrying around. She also helped me see how lonely the cancer experience had been, and still is. The negative emotions of family and friends had turned me into a reluctant and fraudulent “Superman.” It was time to hang up the cape.
Six tips for hanging up your cape
If you feel that you are in a similar situation, I encourage you to do the following:
- Forgive your family and friends for their negative reactions and emotions. They love you so much, it’s hard for them to imagine life without you.
- Find someone who will listen to your anxieties and fears as a cancer patient and survivor. YACC is a great organization for that. Psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists are also there to listen and to help. Whatever you do, don’t go it alone.
- Cancer is not your fault. I will say it again, because it’s that important. Cancer. Is. Not. Your. Fault. Nor are any of the adverse reactions people have to your diagnosis. You did not ask for this to happen to you, so don’t take the responsibility of everyone else’s pain upon yourself. Be understanding toward them, but do not blame yourself.
- Feel what you feel. If you need to cry, cry. If you need to talk, talk. Avoid bottling up your emotions and feelings.
- Be honest with family and friends about how you are feeling. If you act like everything is fine, they will think everything is fine.
- If you know what you need from your friends and family (space, a hug, a walk, a movie night, etc.), let them know. Sometimes they just don’t know how to help.