Steel Magnolias and Cancer: Coping Strategies for Women –
Cancer is a family matter, and cancer creates a crisis of some magnitude not only for the individual who receives a diagnosis but for the family unit as well.
A serious health problem for one member almost always requires some changes in family dynamics. Normally, you would expect a newly diagnosed patient to focus primarily on their treatment and their own needs. For many women with cancer, however, this is not the case. Instead, their attention is split between managing their own response to the diagnosis and the beginning of treatment while managing the responses and issues of their family.
Women usually are the emotional core of their family. They provide stability, encouragement, guidance, comfort, support, and hope.
Their goal is to see that the needs of their loved ones are met and, as best as possible, that their happiness and wellbeing are protected. No matter what they are facing, women feel the need to be strong for others. Despite their own distress, they frequently expend their emotional energy on helping their children, their partners, and their parents deal with related fears and worries. At a time when they need and deserve more support for themselves, women may deplete their personal resources by trying to protect others. This can put them at a disadvantage when battling an adversary like cancer.
When a family member is coping with a cancer diagnosis, communication becomes imperative.
Loved ones need accurate, honest, and age-appropriate information about the illness and treatment. This should include any expected side effects or changes in appearance. Children should be encouraged to openly discuss worrisome things that they hear from friends or neighbors like suggestions for miracle cures or deaths of others from a similar type of cancer. It also is important to talk about potential changes in family roles and activities.
Instead of trying to avoid making any changes, give some thought to how you can temporarily make required and beneficial adaptations, and how you can seek and accept care and assistance from others. Look for compromises and ways to decrease effort and activities as needed. For example, plan a staycation instead of that long drive to visit relatives this year. Also, be selective about tasks and timing and don’t be ruled by rigid schedules.
Accept help when it is offered. This can be hard to do but it can make all the difference when you are struggling with coping. Let your sister host Thanksgiving dinner for a change or let a friend pick up your kids from school. Learn to say “no” without apology. A simple, “I need to take a rain check this time,” is good enough. Save your energy for the most important things.
In addition, the following coping strategies might prove helpful:
Take responsibility for your emotional health as well as your physical health. Care about yourself as much as you care about others. For a while at least, and whenever necessary, put yourself in the very center of your circle of caring.
Get as much information about your disease and treatment as you can and insist on excellent care. Ask questions if you don’t understand something. Get second opinions and tell your physician or other health care professionals if you don’t like the way something is managed. You would do these things for other family members. Why not do them for yourself?
Be precious to yourself (a phrase my grandmother used to use). It means doing things that make you feel happy and giving yourself time to recover and heal both physically and emotionally.
Recognize that fear is a basic human emotion and in times of crises, it is real, and it is normal. Fear is also manageable, but hope is stronger than fear.
Choose to be hopeful. How you define hope and what you hope for is intensely personal. Your hope may, in fact probably will, change as your situation changes, but hope is always possible. Choosing hope over hopelessness is essential because a hopeless person becomes a helpless person.
Lower your own performance standards whenever you can. Good is usually good enough. You don’t have to be perfect, a perfect mother, partner, daughter, employee, or friend. (Does anyone besides you really care if the wrapping paper, ribbon, and tag perfectly match?)
Find a good support system. As hard as others might try, few can actually understand the personal trauma of a cancer diagnosis or the physical and emotional readjustment necessary. Support groups can be particularly valuable. Don’t hesitate to see a counselor if you are feeling overwhelmed or depressed.
Be your own best advocate.
Many cancer survivors believe that it is through self-advocacy that their needs for information, interaction, and support are met. Only you know what is best for you. Speaking up for what you need when faced with a diagnosis of cancer, and knowing how to communicate these needs to family, friends, and caregivers is the first step to self-advocacy.
We now have excellent treatment for most cancers and a majority of those diagnosed with cancer are cured. Others live for years with their disease, managing it as needed. The initial surprise and the crisis that accompanies a new cancer diagnosis will eventually settle down into a new and more acceptable routine.
You and your family will move forward, and you will grow through and beyond what you are currently experiencing.