Speaking openly to relatives with cancer
The worst thing a person can do to comfort someone with cancer is tell them they’ll be fine.
It’s a common mistake, according to radiation oncologist Rob Rutledge. He tells people to just keep it real.
“You shouldn’t say words like, ‘You’re going to be OK’,” said the cancer expert from Dalhousie University Nova Scotia Cancer Centre. “You don’t know that. Anything could happen. A lot of times family members say things like that to reassure themselves rather than the cancer patient.
“But the patient already knows there’s a chance they won’t be okay, so it stops real dialogue. The patient doesn’t want to worry their family member by expressing their real concerns, and the family member doesn’t want to worry the patient by talking honestly. It puts up a wall.”
Dr Rutledge is also the founder of the Healing and Cancer Foundation. PALS has brought him to Bermuda to speak as part of World Cancer Day activities this week. One of his topics will be how people can help relatives with cancer. He cared for his mother, Audrey, in the year leading up to her death from a brain tumour in 2010.
“I started my charity several years before my mother developed cancer,” he said. “What surprised me about the experience was how raw the emotions were.
“I remember being brought to tears just because a nurse showed her kindness when transporting her from a wheelchair to the bed. When I wanted to comfort her I said, ‘I love you. I’ll always be here for you’, but I never gave her false reassurance.”
He said he frequently meets families who are not honest with each another.
“I met with a hospital patient who had cancer,” he said. “She asked me not to tell her husband she had cancer because he couldn’t handle it.”
Ten minutes later Dr Rutledge met her husband.
“He said, ‘Please don’t tell my wife she has cancer, she couldn’t handle it’. I don’t know how he knew exactly; I think he just figured it out. She was in the cancer department. She was near the end of her life, so they’d probably gone for quite a while without talking about it. Sometimes everyone sticks their head in the sand in an effort to avoid upsetting each other.”
Dr Rutledge said there are practical things family members can do to help a cancer patient, but the person with the diagnosis has to dictate what it is they need.
“Family members can help by gathering information around treatment options,” he said. “They can help by sharing information with friends and loved ones.
“But the best thing they can do is just listen, and let the patient express their emotions. If they need to cry, let them cry.”
He said family members also need to take care of themselves.
“It is not selfish to find the alone time you need, to exercise or regenerate,” he said. “Ultimately, you serve other people better when you take care of yourself.
“Studies have found that family members are often just as stressed as the patient. The cancer patient can give care to their family also, if allowed, even if it is just through listening or giving a kind word.”
It’s important to remember that the cancer patient may need emotional support even after their treatment is done.
“A person with a cancer diagnosis often puts on a brave face during treatment, but sometimes they have a meltdown when treatment is over,” he said. “Family members can be aware of that.”
It’s important that family members realise that cancer patients might act out because of what they’re going through.
“Just try to empathise with the patient,” he said. “The reason that they are saying mean things is that they are in terrible pain. But don’t minimise it; set boundaries.
“When people are being especially mean, label it. You might say: ‘I love you and I’m sorry you are suffering’.”
Dr Rutledge holds workshops and retreats throughout North America. He spoke in Bermuda about cancer a year ago. He’ll give a free lecture at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute tomorrow, from 6pm until 7.30pm, when he will discuss what causes cancer, how to decrease your risk, treatment options and what to do for loved ones.
Part of it will be about creating a space for caregivers to talk with others in a similar position.
“There’s lots of tears and lots of sharing,” he said.
“Family members often have many pent-up emotions they have never had a chance to express.”
Dr Rutledge will also host a seminar at PALS on Saturday from 9am to 4pm. It’s open to anyone given a cancer diagnosis of any type and stage, but space is limited.
World Cancer Day will be observed tomorrow at noon with 100 seconds of silence to remember the 100 people who died in Bermuda from cancer last year.