Some people find it easy to talk about their feelings. Others may never feel comfortable. You need to decide when you are ready to talk. It’s OK to tell people you’re not ready to talk and that you’d rather wait for another time. Try not to put it off for too long. Talking about your feelings to a good listener is helpful.
Your family and friends may try to support you by putting on a happy face or by being overly caring. They may deny your illness, or play down your anxiety or symptoms. Let your family and friends know when their behaviour upsets you. They will probably appreciate some direction on how to act.
Sometimes talking to family and friends isn’t enough. You may want to talk to other people, such as:
- nurses: support and assist you through all stages of your treatment
- social worker, physiotherapist and occupational therapist: link you to support services and help you to resume normal activities
- psychologist and psychiatrist: talk with you and your family about your worries. They can help you figure out what upsets you and teach you ways to cope with these feelings. Psychiatrists can prescribe drugs if you are depressed
- support group: offers support and information to people with cancer. Tele-counselling refers to support group meetings that take place by telephone
- pastoral care worker: helps you explore spiritual concerns.
You may not want to talk about your fears and concerns with family and friends. This may be because you think you don’t have the words to describe how you feel, or you fear breaking down if you talk. You may also want to avoid being a burden to family and friends or fear appearing as if you are not coping.
Research has found that support helps people adjust to the diagnosis. The longer you avoid communicating, the harder it will be. If you feel your family won’t understand, join a support group or talk to a health professional.
How you might feel after diagnosis
Cancer treatment can change the way you feel about yourself (your self-esteem). You may feel less confident about who you are and what you can do. This is more common if your body has changed physically, but occurs even if it has not.
Dealing with the cancer diagnosis and the treatment can make you feel like you’re on an emotional rollercoaster. You may not be able to imagine yourself being in a sexual situation after what has happened to your body. If you are single, you may feel anxious about initiating a new relationship. You may feel angry if you are now unable to have children.
These feelings are common, and can affect your self-esteem and your attitude towards intimacy. It will help to talk about how you feel with your partner or other women who have had cancer.
Some people find that physical activities – sports, dancing classes, exercise – improve their body image. Creative activities such as painting, playing music and craft can also increase your self-confidence.
Impact of diagnosis on family and friends
Cancer is difficult for everyone it affects. Your family needs to adjust to the diagnosis too. They may feel uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say, but feel they should say something. They may be worried about how you will react and wonder what to do if you cry.
How your family communicates now may depend on how they have always communicated. Families who frequently share their feelings may be better able to talk about the disease and the changes it brings. Families in which each member solves problems alone, or one person has played the major role in making decisions, may have more difficulty communicating.
As you express your own feelings, remember that others may need to do the same. They may experience similar fears and anxieties, and need as much information and advice as you do. Family members may feel angry too. They may express their own hurt at your outbursts, at the possibility of losing you, and at their inability to do anything about the disease. They may also fear how the illness will change their lives.
Often, family members are ready to talk at different times. Give them the space to talk when the time feels right.
If your family members have difficulty talking about cancer to one another, it may help if they speak to a counsellor or the hospital social worker. If family members deny the reality of cancer or refuse to discuss it, encourage them to come with you to the doctor or the hospital when you are having treatment. This may help them accept your illness.
Easing the way for friends
Helping friends feel at ease can be difficult. At a time when the focus should be on you, you may resent having to do some groundwork to get the support you need.
Often, friends need direction on how to behave with you. They might not be sure that you want company. They might call to ‘see how things are going’, then add as they hang up the phone, ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help’. Take the opportunity to let them know how they can help. Tell your friends exactly what you need from them – be specific. If you can think of something they can do, you’ll be doing both of you a favour.
Cancer can change friendships. Some friends handle it well; others cut off all contact. Friends stay away for different reasons. They may not be able to cope with their feelings or know how to respond to a change in your appearance. Your friends may still care for you, even if they stay away.
If you think that uneasiness rather than fear is keeping a friend from visiting, call them to help ease the way. Remember that you can’t always deal with all the reasons why people avoid you; some still believe that cancer is contagious.
Sometimes you have to be honest with yourself – are friends staying away, or have you withdrawn from them to avoid talking about your fears and anxieties? You may find that talking about your illness helps you cope with it better.
Going it alone
Some people live alone or have no family. This may make them feel lonely or that they have no-one to live for.
If you would like company, support groups provide some comfort or offer the encouragement you need to stay positive.
Impact of diagnosis on partners
What you as a partner can do
Cancer treatment or surgery can change your partner’s body. Areas where touch used to feel good may now be numb or painful. Some of these changes will go away. Some will stay. For now, you can figure out together what kinds of touch feel good, such as holding, hugging and cuddling. Your partner needs to know that you still love her and find her attractive. Remind yourself of her other qualities: sense of humour, intelligence or personality.
Talk to your partner. Ask her to tell you or show you what feels good or what areas are sensitive to touch. You might feel awkward about sexual contact because you think your partner is not ready for sex or that physical contact may hurt her. These feelings may affect your libido or your ability to maintain an erection (impotency). These effects are temporary and will improve with time.
Make dates. Many couples find that it helps to plan special occasions. Some days may end up being better than others for these dates, depending on how your partner feels. So you may need to be OK with last-minute changes.
You don’t have to be fancy. It’s about spending time together. That can mean watching a DVD, going out to eat, or looking through old photos. It can be whatever you both like to do. You can also plan these dates to include other people, if you miss being around others.
A counsellor can help you find ways to help each other. There are many who deal with intimacy and sexuality issues with cancer patients.
Call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20 for more information, or talk to your treatment team.