What cancer patients want
IN SOUTH Africa, one in four people are affected by cancer either directly or through the diagnosis of a friend, family member or colleague.
Breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer in the country, with an incidence rate of one in every eight women.
Dr Marion Morkel, chief medical officer at Sanlam, says this means many people will go through the emotional experience of watching someone they love battle with cancer.
“It’s often difficult to come to terms with the reality of the situation and to know what to say and how to act,” said Morkel.
A support guide has, therefore, been developed to advise family and friends how best to support a loved one fighting cancer. The guide is based on feedback from cancer patients and survivors about the kind of support they received or wanted to receive during treatment.
The number one request from participating cancer patients, said Morkel, was to be treated like a normal human being and not like a disease.
“As surreal as it may feel, you need to try to treat a loved one ‘normally’ and not like a patient.”
Let your loved one talk. Even if what they say makes you sad or uncomfortable.
Listen and don’t judge. Even if you disagree, ultimately their decisions are not yours to make. Gently offer your opinion if it’s asked for.
Be practical. Tangible support like looking after the kids or doing the dishes counts for a lot.
Morkel says many people tiptoe around a loved one, unsure of whether to engage on a deeper level, but responses from cancer patients and survivors show that tough, frank conversations are necessary.
“One patient said: ‘I needed an honest conversation about what lay ahead and the possible path the cancer would take.’
“Everyone is so kind and wants the best for you, but you are not always given the chance to mourn the loss of your health.
“Take the opportunity to mourn alongside a loved one. Listen, engage and ask questions,” he added.
“If a patient makes a decision you disagree with, try not to be judgmental, but rather accepting.
“Remember, these decisions are not yours to make, no matter how close you are to the person.
“You may also want to seek counselling if you feel like you need someone to talk too.”
He said the illness and treatment also had a massive effect on the person’s body, which could escalate rapidly, rendering a patient unable to do simple things like washing his or her hair in the shower.
This presents an opportunity for family and friends to offer practical physical support, whether it’s running errands on a person’s behalf or taking care of their kids.
“If your partner is undergoing cancer treatments, don’t try and take on everything yourself.
“Ask friends for support, hire someone to help with the housework, investigate the cost of childcare and consider whether a full-time caregiver is necessary.”
When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, often friends and family forget about the considerable financial toll it can have on the patient.
For many people, asking for money is hard, so a cancer sufferer is often unlikely to seek monetary assistance, even when it’s needed.
Morkel says that if you’re financially able to do so, preempt some of the costs of cancer by offering donations for medicine, petrol, childcare and groceries.
“Cancer has been known to leave many families destitute, especially when there’s no medical aid, dread disease or income protection in place.”
He adds that hair loss, in women especially, can lead to depression and a feeling of inadequacy.
Friends and family can also help their loved ones to adapt to the new lifestyle by offering genuine compliments and by gifting hats and loose-fitting, comfortable clothes.
While all support is well i n t e n d e d , Morkel cautions that some offers can be misguided. “For many cancer patients, the most significant lifestyle support came from being invited to ‘normal’ everyday gatherings and events. Feeling excluded exacerbates feelings of being an outcast because of illness.
“By inviting a loved one to join in, you make him or her feel less like a patient.”