Coping With a Loved One's Cancer Diagnosis
- “Love Is Blind” star Jackie Bonds, a 27-year-old dental assistant isn’t shy to admit she felt “guilty” following her fathers cancer diagnosis. She recently took to Instagram to open up about the frightening time in her life when her dad was diagnosed with stage 2 head and neck cancer.
- Head and neck cancer, the disease Bonds’ dad battled, is a broad term encompassing a number of different malignant tumors that develop in or around the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses and mouth, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Oral cancer is the most common type of head and neck cancer.
- Watching someone you care about struggle with illness is difficult enough, but to be suddenly dealing with the responsibility of caring for them can make the situation that much harder, particularly if you’re nervous you’re not qualified. While you, of course, want to do all you can for your loved one, it’s important to acknowledge your own needs as well.
- “When you find yourself suddenly having to care for somebody, to be the primary lifeline for them, you very well could have mixed emotion,” Pastor Tom Evans, who cared for his own father as he went through Alzheimer’s, told SurvivorNet.
- Pastor Evans stressed that needing a break when you’re filling the role of caregiver is not selfish, it should be expected. No one can be a caregiver 24/7, 365 days a year.
The California-native took to Instagram to open up about the frightening time in her life when her dad was diagnosed with stage 2 head and neck cancer. Bonds’ courage to talk about how her dad’s diagnosis affected her mental health is something we admire as it’s often difficult for people to come forward with their feelings.Read More
As for Bonds, she took to her social media page to further explain why she broke down in tears after a lunch date in Mexico, when she was engaged to Marshall Glaze on the show.View this post on Instagram
She captioned an Instagram post, which featured screenshots of an Entertainment Weekly article on the matter and a photo of her female costars, “Making sure my family is good before I’m good. My father at the time was fighting Stage 2 Head and Neck Cancer, had a feeding tube in his stomach, had the back of his tongue removed and had 11 cancerous lymph nodes removed from his neck a few months before I filmed the show.”
More Resources On Coping With Cancer & Mental Health
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- Mental Health: Coping With Feelings of Anger
Bonds continued, “I come home every weekend to make sure I pay his bills, clean the house, and make sure my father and mother are good. I felt guilty being happy and enjoying my time in Mexico because my family deserves time away.
“My ‘mental breakdown’ in Mexico was all the emotions of being head of the house, having my family depending on me and having the weight of my emotions and feelings all colliding at once. I will always take care of my father, cancer will never take him from me. Thank you @entertainmentweekly for the chance to tell my story.”
View this post on Instagram
During her conversation with Entertainment Weekly, Bonds explained, “My father, he’s sick. He has cancer, so I have to take care of him when I go home every weekend. I make sure that my parents are good, the bill is paid — my dad can’t work no more. I have a lot of family stuff that I have to tend to.
“Family always comes first. And also, my brother being released from prison, it’s like I have another person to take care of.”
She added, “My life is not for someone who can’t be up to par in supporting me, and just making sure that you understand my life and knowing that this is always going to be a part of me. That was an emotional moment for me because I didn’t feel like, at that moment, Marshall was up to par and ready for all of the reality that I have back home.”
Coping With a Loved One’s Cancer Diagnosis: Prioritizing Your Mental Health
When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer and you suddenly find yourself filling the role of a caregiver, the lifestyle change can be jarring. Caregivers are often spouses, partners, adult children, parents, or trusted friends of the person living with cancer. Many people welcome the role of caregiver and the opportunity to help out someone they care about deeply, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Filling a caregiver role can be extremely stressful and caregivers often neglect their own needs, which can create a host of additional problems.
So what can caregivers do to make sure they are healthy, both mentally and physically, as well? We spoke to doctors, patient advocates, spiritual leaders, and caregivers who have been through cancer with someone they love dearly to round up some of the best advice.
And if you need help with finances, we provide resources you can consider to cope with the cancer bills. If your loved one has just been diagnosed and you are just starting your journey as a caregiver, here are the first steps you should take.
Don’t Hold in Your Feelings
Watching someone you care about struggle with illness is difficult enough, but to be suddenly dealing with the responsibility of caring for them can make the situation that much harder, particularly if you’re nervous you’re not qualified. While you, of course, want to do all you can for your loved one, it’s important to acknowledge your own needs as well.
“When you find yourself suddenly having to care for somebody, to be the primary lifeline for them, you very well could have mixed emotion,” Pastor Tom Evans, who cared for his own father as he went through Alzheimer’s, told SurvivorNet.
“Maybe it’s anger. Maybe this person never cared for you in the past, and now you have to do it for them. And maybe you’re gonna feel like you’re selfish when you need a break.”
Pastor Evans stressed that needing a break when you’re filling the role of caregiver is not selfish, it should be expected. No one can be a caregiver 24/7, 365 days a year.
“So, you need to find time where you’re not doing that and where others are helping you,” he said. “In those frustrations and that anger, take time to find someone to express that to, whether it’s a friend, whether it’s a pastor, whether it’s a neighbor, because as you work that out of your system, you’ll be better able to be there for them.”
Try ‘Realistic Optimism’
Negative thought patterns can make already difficult situations more of a challenge to handle. There is real power in positivity. Of course, it’s easier said than done. Dr. Samantha Boardman, a New York-based psychiatrist, said when patients are struggling with some pervasive patterns of negative thinking, she often works with them to try to deconstruct that mindset.
“Take a look at your beliefs. Do you have any sort of fixed belief that may be counterproductive, that are impeding you from taking positive steps? So something that’s holding you back, thinking, oh, this always happens to me, or maybe this is something that’s always going to be haunting me, or following me,” Dr. Boardman explained to SurvivorNet in an earlier interview.
Dismantling these negative patterns of thinking can help you to be happier with yourself, and to be a better caregiver. Dr. Boardman refers to this mindset as being “realistically optimistic” about your situation.
Take Time for Yourself, Too
Everyone needs time for themselves and if you have been in the house caring for a loved one for weeks, or even months, it’s natural to begin to feel burdened. To avoid creating problems for your own health, try to take time for yourself as often as you can. This could be as simple as a 30-minute walk every morning, taking in a movie at a theatre a few times a month, or hitting the gym for a run once or twice a week.
Pastor Evans noted that trying to be a caregiver 24/7 will “break anybody.”
If you can’t, or don’t feel comfortable, leaving the person you are caring for alone for any significant amount of time, ask for help. Maybe you have a friend or family member who can relieve you of caregiving duties a few times a week so you can tend to your own needs.
If you are struggling to find someone to stay with the person you care for, your community may have options for respite care or sitter-companion services. These terms refer to someone who can come to your home, get to know the patient, and occasionally visit to relief you of caregiving duties for a short time.
Don’t Neglect Your Basic Needs
People who take on caregiving roles often find themselves neglecting their own basic needs. But you’ll be a better caregiver if you also prioritize caring for yourself. Taking care of your health, whether that be with diet, exercise, or making time for activities you enjoy, is still critically important.
“It is important to have some things that you can do that’s kind of outside of the focus of caring for somebody that you love with cancer,” Julie Bulger, manager of patient and family-centered care at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, told SurvivorNet. Bulger suggested caregivers find some activities that help them relax like taking a walk or going for a massage.
“…there’s a lot of opportunities for support virtually through educational resources, support communities,” she added. “You can talk to somebody. You can get therapy virtually now.”
Seek Professional Help If You Need It
When a stressful life event occurs, like a loved one being diagnosed with cancer, people respond in a variety of ways.
“The way people respond is very variable,” Psychiatrist Dr. Lori Plutchik told SurvivorNet. “Very much consistent with how they respond to stresses and challenges in their life in general.”
When struggling with a new stressor, there are many different, and healthy, ways to cope. Some people may seek out traditional therapy, and there should be no shame in that.
If you are struggling mentally due to the stress of caring for a loved one, there are many options that may be able to help you cope. These include:
- Seeking professional help from a psychiatrist or therapist
- Learning healthy coping skills
- Medication such as antidepressants
- Adding more physical activity to your routine
- Adjusting your sleep schedule
- Connecting with others via support groups
- Mindfulness and meditation
Understanding Head and Neck Cancer
Head and neck cancer, the disease Bonds’ dad battled, is a broad term encompassing a number of different malignant tumors that develop in or around the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses and mouth, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Oral cancer is the most common type of head and neck cancer.
ASCO estimates that an estimated 66,920 people (49,190 men and 17,730 women) will be diagnosed with head and neck cancer this year. In the United States, these cancers account for about 4 percent of all cancers.
The two main risk factors for this group of diseases include the following:
- Tobacco use. This is the single largest risk factor for head and neck cancer with researchers estimating that 70 to 80 percent of head and neck cancers being linked to tobacco use. Also worthy of note is that secondhand smoke may increase a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer.
- Alcohol use. Using alcohol and tobacco together increases your risk even more.
“Head and neck cancer patients, we know that tobacco smoking is a risk but also heavy alcohol use,” Dr. Jessica Geiger, a medical oncologist specializing in head and neck cancer at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, previously told SurvivorNet.
“So, drinking more than two or three drinks if you’re a man per day, in addition to smoking. Smoking and alcohol are sort of additive carcinogens. Especially in cancer of the larynx or the voice box, we know that drinking heavily, heavy alcohol use, is just as important of a risk factor as tobacco smoking is.”
Other factors that can increase your risk of developing a head and neck cancer include the following:
- Prolonged sun exposure. This is especially linked to cancer in the lip area, as well as skin cancer of the head and neck.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV). Research shows that infection with HPV is a risk factor for head and neck cancer. Nearly every sexually-active person will get HPV at some point in their lives, but most people with the infection do not know they have it and never develop symptoms or health problems from it. The virus is spread via sexual activity and can manifest as warts on your genitals or mouth. Thankfully, we have three types of HPV vaccines that can reduce the rates of certain cancers.
- Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Exposure to EBV, which is more commonly known as the virus that causes mononucleosis or mono, plays a role in the development of nasopharyngeal cancer.
- Gender. Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop head and neck cancer. However, the rate of head and neck cancer in women has been rising for several decades.
- Age. People over the age of 40 are at higher risk for head and neck cancer.
- Poor oral and dental hygiene. Poor care of the mouth and teeth may increase the risk of head and neck cancer.
- Environmental or occupational inhalants. Inhaling asbestos, wood dust, paint fumes and certain chemicals may increase a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.
- Marijuana. Research suggests that people who have used marijuana may be at higher risk for head and neck cancer.
- Poor nutrition. A diet low in vitamins A and B can raise a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and laryngopharyngeal reflux disease (LPRD). Reflux of stomach acid into the upper airway and throat may be associated with the development of head and neck cancer.
- Weakened immune system. A weakened immune system can raise a person’s risk of head and neck cancer.
- Exposure to radiation. Exposure to radiation is associated with salivary gland cancer.
- Previous history of head and neck cancer. People who have had one head and neck cancer have a higher chance of developing another head and neck cancer in the future.
Treatment for head and neck cancers vary, but it generally involves a many-sided approach.
“The treatment of head and neck cancer and to cure head and neck cancer, it involves multiple specialties, radiation oncology, medical oncology, nutrition, speech and language pathology to make sure that patients are swallowing appropriately and getting their nutrition in,” Dr. Geiger said. “All of us need to work together as a cohesive team in order to make that happen.”
Dr. Geiger also says it can be difficult for some patients to get through treatment, but there are people out there to help.
“It can be a challenge to get them through treatment,” Dr. Geiger said. “However, by the time I see them, they’ve already been diagnosed with cancer and so, I, in addition to being a medical oncologist and giving chemotherapy and following patients through their treatment, I also tell them that I serve as their cheerleader. I’m there to coach them through treatment.”
Another thing to consider when thinking about head and neck cancer patients, or any cancer patient for that matter, s their mental health. Dr. Geiger says it’s not uncommon for head and neck patients to “feel depressed or down,” and a good support system will be key for their cancer journey.
“It’s important for caregivers and support that patients have either a spouse or a close family member, or friend or relative to help get them through treatment as well,” Dr. Geiger said. “No one can get through treatment for head and neck cancer on their own. It really does take a community. Not just with the medical professional staff but also caregivers and support at home.”
Currently, there are no screening methods for head and neck cancer that have been proven to improve patient outcomes. Even still, it’s important to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of the disease and report them to your doctor should any appear.
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff