In this post, I want to talk about the kind of support that a family member or friend needs from you when they’re first diagnosed with cancer. It’s a very frightening time for us and although it can certainly be reassuring to the point of making the “impossible” seem possible when loving family members and friends say “You’re not in this alone, I’ll be with you every step of the way”, ultimately, it’s a journey we have to take alone. We’re the ones who have to make the life-changing decision to select our treatment option; we’re the ones who have to endure the discomfort at best, and excruciating pain at worst, of conventional treatments like chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation over many months if not years; we’re the ones who have to undergo surgery and suffer its potential complications or endure the post-operative long-term impact on our bodies; and we’re the ones who have to take on very restrictive diets or perhaps travel alone to far off lands if we opt for natural and alternative approaches to treatment. It’s often a long and lonely journey but family and friends can still walk with us to make it easier to bear as their role, if played the way that we need it to, is a vital one. In a later post, I’ll talk about the emotional and physical upheaval faced by family and friends as they care for those struck down by cancer and how that can be helped, but for now let’s focus on the best type of support that they can provide to the cancer sufferer.
Firstly, we need you to help us make the right treatment option. Around 90% of people diagnosed with cancer, select a conventional route for their treatment which is usually surgery (if required) followed up with chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy or other cancer drug depending upon the type of cancer (there are more than 200) and its staging. Since the vast majority of those diagnosed with cancer go into an immediate panic, we need you to keep a level head and tell us to take a step back so we can research and then evaluate all the conventional and natural treatment options available. Human beings are conditioned to accept authority and none more so than when an oncologist in a white coat with all those letters after his or her name tells us that we need one of these post-operative conventional treatment plans to deal with our disease. However, most people in the developed world have access to the internet and a device to effortlessly find the vast amount of information out there, and you can help us to calmly sift through it. Assist us in finding out the exact nature of our disease, the side effects of any surgery and the drug that the oncologist has prescribed, our prognosis for survival when taking the recommended medication, the natural treatment options available and their success rates too. Then, when we’ve digested all the information required, support us in our treatment choice, even if it’s not the one that you’d have selected for us.
In my case, I had a very supportive wife in Yasmin and we were fortunate to be on the same page with our spiritual views on life, but I know she’d have supported me if I’d decided to accept the immunotherapy treatment, ipilimumab, which my oncologist wanted to give me rather than taking the alternative and natural path as I did. However, if after research and discussion, your views are not in alignment with those of the cancer sufferer, it’s vital that you support their treatment choice. You need to build trust from the beginning and you can’t do that if you oppose their decision from the outset. As I was working full-time in Doha, Qatar, and Yasmin was studying her MBA at home when I was diagnosed with stage IIIn2 melanoma in January 2016, she didn’t experience the same time pressures as me and so did much research during the first week week on the side effects of ipilimumab (very unpleasant) and the prognosis for survival (not great). We spent the first weekend after my diagnosis scouring the internet looking for alternative and natural treatments for cancer and associated survivor stories on You Tube. I was then encouraged enough to decide upon a treatment plan that included a plant-based diet, juicing, a variety of supplements like wheatgrass and turmeric as well as the more alternative bicarbonate of soda therapy and vitamin B-17 (laetrile) in the form of apricot kernels. Yasmin provided further support by coming with me to the oncologist when I had to inform him of my decision to reject ipilimumab, spending considerable time with me in hospital both before and after my February 2016 surgery to clear lymph nodes under my right arm, going with me to the oncologist to get my PET scan results in August 2016 and perhaps more importantly than all of that, preparing these healthy meals and giving me a ‘kick up the backside’ if I try to cheat on my diet!
Secondly, cancer is a frightening disease and people tend to react to the news in one of two ways. After the initial shock, they either go into ‘fight’ mode and confront the disease head on with a “bring it on” attitude or they go into ‘flight’ mode in which they run away from their cancer in a state of denial. Clearly, the first response is the easiest for the family member or friend to deal with, but it’s the ‘flight’ mode which is the most challenging for the support team to handle. However, you help the cancer sufferer feel more empowered to deal with their disease when they feel they’ve had a hand in calmly selecting their treatment plan and have also received plenty of positive talk from their support team. I must say that, post-operatively, I handed over my treatment almost entirely to Yasmin. She went out and bought all the vitamins, minerals and amino acids that I needed, she cooked all of my vegan meals, and prepared all my fresh vegetable juices as well as healthy snacks for my lunch box at work. However, we both knew that I needed to take more ownership for my treatment and so I did exactly that after about six months. When I did the shopping, I always ensured that I had good stocks of all the foods I needed for my vegan meals, I began to prepare my own juices and started researching even more on natural and alternative approaches to cancer treatment, adding things to my diet that I felt were important for my health.
Thirdly, anyone’s state of health is a very sensitive subject, both for them and whoever else knows about it. As far as cancer is concerned, this is particularly true of the sufferer with the ‘flight’ mentality. If they’re in denial, they can only perpetuate this mindset if no-one else knows about their diagnosis. You have to follow their wishes about who they want to tell and never ever betray this confidence with idle gossip. You’ll probably find that as the cancer sufferer feels more empowered, they’ll start to tell their inner circle anyway when they feel the time is right, but it’s not for you to do so or you’ll surely lose their trust, leaving them to possibly fight on alone. If their physical appearance starts to show any ravages of conventional treatment, you can quietly suggest that perhaps the time has now come for them to share the news with other family members and friends but, I repeat, it must be their decision whether to do so and you must respect it.
You also need to draw a fine balance in how often you talk about their disease and how you behave towards them as they undergo treatment. Most cancer sufferers don’t want to be defined by their disease and want you to treat them as you always used to before they were diagnosed. This means rarely, if ever, asking them how they’re feeling. This is not only true for those who adopt the ‘fight’ approach, but also for those who have the ‘flight’ response because when you continue as normal, they can remain in denial about their disease. ‘Flight’ is just a coping mechanism and so not a bad strategy at all unless that denial extends to not finding out about their disease and not following through on a treatment plan. On the other hand, there are cancer sufferers who want to be asked how they’re feeling on a regular basis because they need you to show them that you care, while yet another group with the ‘poor me’ victim-like personality want you to mollycoddle them constantly. Ultimately, the best thing to do is ask the cancer sufferer how they want you to behave towards them and then do that. And, finally, when discussing future plans like holidays, trips, parties and so forth involving family and friends, you should always include the cancer sufferer in the group on the assumption that they’ll be there to participate. This sends a powerful message that you believe they’ll survive this cancer, and be strong and healthy in future.
Furthermore, we need encouragement to keep going when times get rough. This is particularly true of conventional treatments like chemotherapy, stem cell transplants and so forth. My cousin has been in and out of different hospitals in Brighton and London with multiple myeloma and has had numerous rounds of chemo as well as bone marrow transplants. It’s a gruelling process for him but positive talk helps enormously. “You’re strong”, “you’ll get through this”, and, if true, “you’ve always overcome every challenge that’s come your way” are just some of the phrases which you can say as long as they’re delivered with real sincerity and conviction, otherwise you’ll just come across as fake and not believable. You can also back this up by finding survivor stories related to the particular cancer being treated the same way as that of your family member or friend and then sharing it with them. If you want to go further, some family members and friends even shave their head in solidarity with the cancer sufferer who suffers hair loss as a result of their treatment. However, alternative and natural approaches, when administered correctly, don’t come with any painful side effects and so with respect to this approach, we just need you to keep us on our toes, reminding us to take this and avoid that.
And finally, cancer is a complex disease and if conventional therapies do lead to remission, it can take quite some time to see this clearly. You need to find out as much as possible about what’s going on with the health of the cancer sufferer by talking to them and accompanying them to appointments with their cancer support team. Then, if the signs of recovery look promising, you should encourage them to be patient. However, if it’s clear that the original treatment plan isn’t working and the health of the family member or friend is going downhill fast, you need to have the courage to suggest another treatment option. After all, world-renowned German-born theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, is generally credited with saying “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. Once again, you should suggest a change in treatment but not pressurise them into adopting it.