Supporting yourself while supporting someone with incurable cancer (Part 2)

"Supporting someone while supporting someone else" written over a picture of a man walking by himself in a wheat field, with a white sky background.

A loved one’s cancer diagnosis can have just as large an impact as a personal diagnosis. Our Cancer Information and Support Advisor, Jenna, is here to talk through some of the complicated emotions you might feel, and ways you can help yourself cope. If you missed the Jenna’s first blog post, you can read it here.

In Part 1 of this blog series, I talked through the huge emotional impact coping with the incurable diagnosis of a loved one can have. We discussed the importance of being gentle with yourself and listening to your emotions to help you understand what you need.

In Part 2, I hope to share some ways to support yourself through what can be such a difficult time.

Just as everyone’s emotional response is individual, what each person needs to help them find their way through is also very personal. In light of this, my suggestions here are by no means a prescriptive list. Instead, I hope my suggestions will help support you cope with what you’re going through.

Your feelings are not a burden to others, and it is okay to ‘get things wrong’

It can be very challenging to navigate difficult conversations with your loved one about their diagnosis and care, and understand how best to support them. As discussed in Part 1 of the blog, how we react, and our emotional response, is made up of so much more than just the event or thing itself. If you feel you have said the ‘wrong’ thing or not got something quite right, talk about it. Although it can feel incredibly daunting, people will often appreciate your attempts to support and make things right, rather than being so fearful of causing more upset at such a difficult time that you tread too lightly or withdraw completely.

Please don’t ever feel you need to apologise for your feelings or worry that you are being a burden for having them. You are also not responsible for how other people feel. So many of us struggle with this, but you are responsible to others, not for them. You can’t make another person feel something. In response to the same comment or action, I may be angry, whilst you may be upset, and someone else may be unaffected completely…

We have booklets which might help. These include Talking to Someone who has Cancer , ‘Looking After Someone with Cancer and Cancer and Relationships. These may be really useful to have a read through if you’ve been finding this difficult.

It’s okay to not have space for the feelings of others all the time

Remember, you’re human and there is only so much you can hold. Please don’t feel guilty for not having space for the emotions of other loved ones or family members right now. It is not selfish, or heartless, it is understandable.

“Don’t feel guilty for not having space for the emotions of other loved ones or family members right now.”

If you can’t ‘be there’ in the way you’d like to be there for them right now, express this, and perhaps encourage them to contact us for support. This allows you to look after yourself whilst showing you care and want to help. Knowing our limits and boundaries are vital for self-care.

The benefits of talking: taking the risk

It can sound so small when facing something so huge, which feels as if it has turned your whole world upside down. However, it can really help to talk through the situation and how you are feeling with someone you trust. This could be with us on the Macmillan Support Line, or with family or friends.

Many coping with an incurable diagnosis of a loved one say it feels hard to speak to those who haven’t been through this situation. They describe feeling that there is no way other people can possibly understand what they are going through. What would be the point in risking opening yourself up and making yourself so vulnerable, when you’re already in so much pain?

You are the expert in knowing what is best for you and what you need. However, I’d gently offer a thought that although someone may not have been through the exact experience you have, they may still be able to offer valuable support. Empathy is such a powerful balm which comes not just from one’s own experience of that exact situation, but of their genuine and non-judgemental desire to understand exactly how this feels for you. To want to walk in your shoes with you for a time so things don’t feel so overwhelming and lonely. And so although it may feel daunting, it might be worth the risk.

“You are the expert in knowing what is best for you and what you need.”

Having the opportunity to talk to people who are dealing with similar experiences can be a vitally important source of support. That’s why we have our Supporting Someone with Incurable Cancer’ Forum on our Online Community. Here you can share your feelings, ask questions and access support support 24/7, 365 days a year, so please don’t forget we’re here if you need us.

When talking is too hard, or more is needed

I’m conscious though that for some, or at certain times, talking is just too difficult. It therefore may be helpful to access other ways of supporting yourself and making sense of what is happening when needed.

Writing in a journal, mindfulness, using exercise, getting creative, or complimentary therapies can all help with feelings that you perhaps can’t put into words right now.

Although you may feel lost right now, I can’t stress enough that you know yourself best. As long as it’s safe and isn’t putting yourself or anyone else at risk, honour your gut instinct no matter how silly or strange. Do what you feel you need to do. For you. You feel you need to shout? sing? dance? laugh? play? There is nothing wrong with having fun or engaging with those things that bring you joy right now. They might not come as naturally, but they are vital in sustaining us and for expressing ourselves.

Our booklet, ‘How Are You Feeling: the Emotional Effects of Cancer’, contains valuable tips and resources to help you find ways to support yourself and access extra support.

Although I wish more than anything there were, there is sadly no magic fix to whisk these painful emotions and experiences away. However, there are certain things you can do, and support you can access to look after yourself and make things as manageable as they can be right now.

Do what you need to when you need to, and don’t ever be afraid to ask for support.

Remember, the Macmillan Support Line and Community are here as much and for as long as you need us.

Take care.

We’d like to thank Jenna for taking the time to write for the Community News blog. If you are supporting a loved one with cancer, please remember that there are others out there who can understand how you feel: