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Understanding and Coping with Change

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You have just found out a parent, grandparent or other loved one has cancer. You may feel angry, sad or afraid. All of these are natural reactions. Your loved one is feeling the same emotions—anger, fear, sadness. You may not have been told right away about the diagnosis, so you might be feeling betrayed and left out. Remember, though, your loved one was coping with his or her own emotions and may have wanted to spare you having to go through the same. Because of that person’s own fear, he or she may have wanted to pretend life has not changed, that it would go on as normal. A person’s desire for normalcy is natural. Your loved one needs help right now, and there will be some changes.

While cancer is serious and can be scary, it is fairly common and no one’s fault. Diagnosis of cancer and treatment regimens have progressed dramatically over the last 10 years and continue to advance at a rapid pace, so there is hope for the person in your life who has head and neck cancer.

Your loved one is in a tough battle. The fight will likely begin with surgery, followed by other treatments to stop the cancer from spreading, possibly including chemotherapy and radiation therapy. If there are younger children in the home, you may be asked to help with their care. You may also be asked to help them deal with the upcoming changes, so it is important to find out as much as you can about how this cancer will change your daily routine and how best to help your family to cope while ensuring you are caring for your own needs as well.

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Understanding the diagnosis

Finding out someone close to you has cancer can set off a storm of emotions that may cause you to feel vulnerable or afraid. Not knowing and not being informed, however, can cause more fear than knowing. The best way to lessen your fear is to find out as much information as you can about the type and severity of the cancer, the treatment options and likely outcomes.

The person with cancer is probably your best source of information, but before asking questions, take time to let the diagnosis sink in. Because the news may be a shock, you likely will not remember all the information you find, so keeping a journal or notebook specifically about the cancer can be helpful in coping with the changes to come. You can also create a customized Guidebook on this site to make sure you are getting the most useful information when you need it.

Do not be alarmed if your loved one is unaware of your feelings about the diagnosis. He or she is dealing with a mountain of information, as well as his or her own emotions about the diagnosis.1Barnes J, Kroll L, Burke O, Lee J, Jones A, Stein A. Qualitative interview study of communication between parents and children about maternal breast cancer. BMJ. 2000;321:479-482. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1450041/. Do not hesitate, however, to talk about how you are feeling and ask questions. Keeping the lines of communication open between you and your loved one will help relieve your fears as well as help support the person with cancer.

Ask questions and do your own research, but make sure your resources are reputable. Misleading, confusing or incorrect information can make it harder to cope with the news.2Keeley D. Telling children about a parent’s cancer. BMJ. 2000 August 19;321(7259):462-463. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1118373/. Your loved one’s care team is there to help you as well and can guide you to the most relevant, helpful resources available. A school counselor, your own primary care physician and other trusted adults can also help you to find answers to your questions and guide you as you deal with the changes to come.

Expect change

As soon as the cancer is diagnosed, life changes for your loved one and for you. He or she may need surgery, which could change his or her appearance as well as how he or she maintains nutrition and speech. Treatment therapies bring more changes, with chemotherapy and radiation therapy having their own specific side effects that require adjustments in the activities of daily living. If you anticipate and understand how life is going to change, you will be more prepared when it happens. However, sometimes you can’t prepare enough for the results.

Your first reaction may be to keep your emotions to yourself, not wanting to burden anyone else with your concerns; but this can only hurt you, both emotionally and physically.3Welch AS, Wadsworth ME, Compas BE. Adjustment of children and adolescents to parental cancer. Parents' and children's perspectives. Cancer. 1996 Apr 1;77(7):1409-18. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8608523/. Talking with your loved one can help you explore and deal with the emotional, physical and lifestyle changes you are going through and make the road ahead seem less daunting. Keeping the lines of communication open will help you both cope better.

Coping refers to the actions and thoughts you use to deal with difficult events and emotions. Coping with the changes in your life after a cancer diagnosis in the family can seem overwhelming, but it can be done by keeping in mind that the changes are not all bad. Make a plan as to how you are going to cope with the changes.2Keeley D. Telling children about a parent’s cancer. BMJ. 2000 August 19;321(7259):462-463. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1118373/.

  • Maintain a sense of normalcy in home and family routines to the extent possible. While life may have changed dramatically, anything that gives you a sense of normalcy will help you and your family cope with the changes. Talk about activities you have done as a family that you can still do now or that you could do a bit differently.
  • Establish new routines. Treatment plans will change from time to time, as will your loved one’s response. Discussing a new routine with each change will help bring you closer together and give you both a sense of control over your lives.
  • Talk about the future and make plans. A diagnosis of cancer can be a stopping point in the lives of everyone, but planning for the future can give you both something to look forward to.
  • Talk with friends who are dealing with the cancer of someone close. Sharing experiences and coping strategies may help you feel less isolated, lonely and afraid, and you will be helping them as well.
  • Ask for help. Do not keep your feelings to yourself. The changes you are coping with are big, and dealing with them is a daunting prospect for everyone—adults, teens and children alike. You do not have to handle everything by yourself, so ask for help when you are feeling overwhelmed.
  • Have a life. As much as possible, continue to see friends, go to a movie or socialize. Maintaining some normalcy outside the home as well as inside the home, with allowance for your other new responsibilities, will help you feel less isolated and more in control of the situation.
I would tell other teens going through this to stay positive. Zach and Sydney W. (children of cancer survivor)

References

1 Barnes J, Kroll L, Burke O, Lee J, Jones A, Stein A. Qualitative interview study of communication between parents and children about maternal breast cancer. BMJ. 2000;321:479-482. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1450041/.

2 Keeley D. Telling children about a parent’s cancer. BMJ. 2000 August 19;321(7259):462-463. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1118373/.

3 Welch AS, Wadsworth ME, Compas BE. Adjustment of children and adolescents to parental cancer. Parents' and children's perspectives. Cancer. 1996 Apr 1;77(7):1409-18. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8608523/.