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Six Tips to Emotionally Support a Loved One with Terminal Cancer

Today, I gladly turn my blog over to Michelle Wittmer and the good people at the Mesothelioma Center. Since my wife, Carole, passed, I have been asked often about when the appropriate time is to consider hospice and how to be a better caregiver, but Michelle’s words are special. Please read them and comment. Thank you Michelle!


Six Tips to Emotionally Support a Loved One with Terminal Cancer

Providing emotional support is essential to caregiving for someone with cancer, but many people doubt they are equipped for the role.

Caregivers often are spouses or children and are dealing with their own emotional turmoil over their loved one’s cancer diagnosis. This is especially true if the cancer diagnosis is terminal.

At The Mesothelioma Center, we help patients and families facing a terminal diagnosis. Along the way we’ve gathered tips from patients, caregivers, mental health therapists and oncology social workers on how to emotionally support someone with cancer. The following six tips may help caregivers transition to a more emotionally supportive role.

  1. Take time to feel and accept your emotions. When caregivers allot time and energy to process their own feelings they often feel more capable of emotionally supporting others. Think of your emotions as water in a cup. Feeling and accepting your emotions is akin to taking a drink from the cup. The more you feel your emotions, the less full your cup. But the cup can become filled if you feel the emotions of the person you’re caring for. That’s known as empathy. Taking time to process your own emotions will help prevent your cup from running over — or emotional exhaustion — allowing you more emotional energy to support your loved one.
  2. Acknowledge anticipatory grieving. Anticipatory grief, or living with an expectation of a loss and grieving as a result, can weigh heavily on the hearts and minds of terminal cancer patients and their loved ones. Knowing that mesothelioma life expectancy averages less than two years can naturally lead people to anticipate the loss, and sometimes this develops into full-blown grieving prior to the loss actually happening. A specific type of counseling known as grief counseling can help. And many books are available on processing grief.
  3. Know the signs of depression. Both patient and loved ones may experience feelings of depression following a cancer diagnosis. Common signs of depression include prolonged sadness, feeling helpless, hopeless, or exhausted, changes in appetite or sleep and poor concentration. Processing these feelings isn’t easy, but it is possible with support from friends and family. If feelings of depression begin to impact a person’s ability to function in day-to-day life, reach out to your doctor and ask about counseling. A mental health therapist can offer constructive, healthy ways to cope.
  4. Inquire about counseling at treatment centers. Many cancer treatment centers now offer counseling services to patients and family members. Counseling services are included free of charge at some cancer centers, while others may charge a nominal fee. Certain insurance plans now cover a limited number of counseling sessions, such as six or eight fully covered therapy meetings, and some plans may offer partial coverage thereafter.
  5. Find support groups. Support groups can offer both patients and caregivers an outlet to share experiences and emotions, which promotes emotional release and can reduce stress. Some cancer support groups are designed solely for patients or caregivers, while many welcome both. In-person support groups are often found through cancer treatment centers and may be located at recreation centers or churches. Online support groups and forums are available, and many are even specific to certain cancer types.
  6. Look for a patient advocate or oncology social worker. These professionals can help you learn about resources available to people with cancer in less time than you can doing research on your own. Depending on the type of cancer your loved one has, different resources will be available. A patient advocate or oncology social worker can cut some of the time and energy you’d spend figuring out resources yourself, reducing stress in the process. For example, some travel grants are available to help cancer patients get to treatment at specialized centers. And certain cancers caused by occupational exposure to carcinogenic products may qualify for financial assistance through trust funds. Other free resources, like reading materials and stress reduction tips, are often accessed through patient advocates and oncology social workers. Look for them online or ask the patient’s oncologist if one is available through the cancer center.

Resources are available to help caregivers transition to an emotionally supportive role, such as support literature, online support groups and counseling. With a healthy toolbox of coping resources on their side, caregivers can begin to feel better equipped to emotionally support their loved one.

Michelle Whitmer has been a medical writer and editor for The Mesothelioma Center since 2008. Focused on the benefits of natural and holistic medicine as complementary therapy for cancer patients, Michelle is a certified yoga instructor and earned her B.A. in Environmental Studies from Rollins College in Florida.


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