Dealing with a life changing diagnosis: Providing support or being a carer

Learning that someone close to you has a potentially life impacting diagnosis, is a difficult experience. You may feel anxious, afraid or overwhelmed by your own emotions and wonder how you can help them during the times ahead. You may experience a sense of disbelief, denial and also a sense of grief. If you take on the role of caring for someone undertaking treatment, you may also need to adjust to new responsibilities and pressures.

Whilst receiving such a diagnosis is devastating, being the family member or friend providing support is also extremely taxing and confronting. You might want to talk to them about it, but struggle to find the right words or worry about saying the wrong thing. You are also likely to be struggling, however feeling the need to hide these feelings for fear of burdening. It is perfectly normal to feel lost for words, regardless of how close you are with the person. Your responses would very much depend on your relationship and your personal experiences and whilst there is no script, there are some things that would be worthwhile considering.

Everyone’s experiences are unique and even if you have faced significant obstacles in the past, it is not possible to fully grasp what the person is going through. So being empathic and assisting the person in exploring the facets of their own experience, is one of the most essential things to consider.
– The person may be overwhelmed with a flood of emotions, when facing an uncertain future. Even with many supports around them, the person may feel isolated.
-The person may be in denial, attempting to self-blame or find explanations for what has happened.
– The person may be dealing with the physical effects of having treatment. Their sense of independence may change and impact on both them and also others.
– The person may need to reconsider their goals, priorities or financial plans and may be dealing with changes to employment or general functioning.

There are many ways to provide support and these will vary depending on your relationship, your own situation and also your own ability to cope with the situation. Some avenues of support may include:
Simply checking in with the person on a regular basis and really tuning in to their responses. Take the time to really listen and respond. Often, people are not after advice but need an attentive and caring listener. If the person wants to confide about what they are going through, give them time to speak, be genuine and try not to probe or interrupt.

Keeping normality is vitally important. Continue inviting the person to the usual social events and involving them as much as possible. Always provide the option of declining or even last minute cancellations without judgment. Try not to alter your interaction style or physical behaviours. Jokes and hugs, if they were the previous norm continue to be valuable. It’s also good to talk about other everyday things too as distraction is vitally important.

Practical help, especially specific rather than vague offers of help may also be well received. Preparing a meal, helping out with cleaning and offers to be a support person at appointments are all things to consider especially for a person who may have difficulty asking for help.

Whilst providing false expectations and drawing comparisons to previous cases is not helpful, positivity and hope can be a coping strategy that aids adjustment and adaptation. A positive frame of mind can make a person feel a sense of optimism and confidence and improve resilience. As a support person, the role is not to obstruct the gravity of the situation, but to support the person to gradually adjust to the diagnosis, let go of what was or what might have been, and accept what is.

Whilst striving to provide all of the above supports, one is often confronted with their own sense of grief, fear and hopelessness. Feeling like everything has changed and may never get back to normal can evoke feelings of anticipatory grief, which is a feeling of uncertainty and fear about what the future holds. This breaks our own sense of safety. Being a support person, in any context, but especially when dealing with a significant illness is a distressing and an emotionally and mentally draining role.

Family and friends are a great resource for support, but sometimes things can seem so overwhelming even for them, especially if they are dealing with similar emotions. In those cases, seeking professional advice and support from a trained psychologist can assist people and their families to work through their feelings.

If you or someone you know are going through difficulties and need support, why not give us a call today?  Our team of highly skilled and well-experienced Psychologists are here to help.

J. Bruce, E. Pelosi (2017). Caring for Someone with Cancer. Cancer Council
E. Heuberk (2007). 6 Ways to conquer a scary diagnosis.

Lana professional photo

This blog was written by Lana Lubomirska, Psychologist at Your Mind Matters.

Lana is a warm, friendly and empathic practitioner with experience in working with children, adolescents and adults from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Lana uses a variety of evidence-based therapies to support clients in addressing difficulties with anxiety, depression, relationship issues, friendship problems and educational stresses. These include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, Solution Focused Therapy and Mindfulness Techniques as well as elements of psychodynamic and play therapies.

Lana works with us 2 evenings per week.