COMMUNICATING WITH OTHERS
Cancer is a blow to every family it touches. How you respond to the blow depends on how you have functioned as a family in the past. Families who are used to sharing their feelings with each other usually are able to talk about the disease and the changes it brings. Families in which each member solves problems alone or in which one person has played the major role in making decisions, might have more difficulty coping.
Communicating With Your Partner
In a misguided attempt to protect your loved one, you may try to hide your emotions from him. Don’t. It is far better to involve your partner as soon as possible, so the two of you can find strength in each other, and learn from the beginning how you can work as a team in the weeks and months to come.
Couples may have difficulty adjusting to the role changes that are sometimes necessary. A partner who was responsible for only part of the daily activities may now become the sole breadwinner and homemaker, preparing dinner, changing the bedding and dressings, and providing companionship and emotional support. The sheer weight of these responsibilities can be overwhelming.
A partner’s concern or fears also can affect your sexual relationship. Some may worry that physical intimacy will harm the person who has cancer. Others may fear that they might “catch” the cancer or be affected by the drugs. Many of these issues can be cleared up by open communications.
Both you and your partner should feel free to discuss sexual concerns with each other, as well as with your doctor, nurse, or other counselor who can give you the information and the reassurance you need.
Try to remember that your husband, boyfriend or partner probably will be affected by your diagnosis as much as you. In some ways his challenge may be particularly difficult because he will have to manage his own emotions, and at the same time shoulder the task of being your key supporter.
You can help by communicating your needs clearly. “I would love it if you…” will be far better for both of you than some unstated wish left unfulfilled.
Telling Your Children
We have five children… We had a basketball game that night…
This is one of the more challenging tasks you and your partner will have to handle. Your first impulse may be to attempt to shield your children from pain by downplaying or withholding information. Don’t underestimate their insight. Children’s ability to pick up signals is greater than most people realize, and trying to keep a complex situation such as cancer a secret, is practically impossible. More than likely, they will sense that all is not well, and wander away imagining horrors far worse than reality. They will get a dose of misinformation from their classmates, which will only fuel their fears.
A much better approach is a simple and straightforward explanation, geared to each child’s age and ability to understand. Conveying the impression that you are comfortable and that you trust them, will help them deal with the situation.
Parents may not have the emotional energy to provide the usual support, love, and authority. It may help if a favorite relative or family friend can devote extra time and attention to the children to help maintain normal family routines as much as possible. Events like trips to the zoo are important, but so is helping with homework, or attending the basketball awards banquet.
Remember, breast cancer does not need to be a totally negative experience. Instead, it can serve as a tool that will help your family grow stronger and be more united.
Telling Your Family
The people who are close to you also will be affected by your news. They too may need to be angry, cry, and express their emotions. It’s a natural part of adjusting to your diagnosis. It will help both you and them to talk openly about each other’s feelings. Open communication from the start will go a long way toward strengthening the bonds with your loved ones, and securing the support you’ll need.
Sometimes the “extended family” can be just too “extended” or too expressive. Their combined concerns can be overwhelming, and may have a negative effect on you. Feel free to limit the lines of communication with relatives who drain, rather than replenish, your energy. Remember, you are the one in charge, and this is the time when you need unwavering support.
Dealing with Friends and Others
Friends can be an excellent source of help and support, particularly if you keep them informed, and help them help you. Some friends will deal well with your illness and will provide gratifying support. Some will be unable to cope with the possibility of your death, and will disappear from your life. Most will want to help, but may be unsure of how to go about it, and will be waiting for clues from you about where to begin.
You may have to be the one who takes the initiative in reestablishing contact. Telephone those who don’t call you. Make specific requests for simple things—to run an errand, prepare a meal, come for a visit. No one who is healthy can imagine how much they will be appreciated if they do nothing but pick up a few things off the floor for a woman who may not be able to bend down for a few days after surgery. These small acts bring friends back into contact and help them feel useful and needed.
When it comes to conversational topics, bear in mind that people who don’t have experience dealing with cancer may have no idea what is acceptable. “Isn’t it too personal to ask about her breast reconstruction?” or “Should I pretend nothing happened?” or “How do I discuss her fears with her, without making things worse?” Help them by being the first to bring up whatever subject you want to discuss.
Beyond the immediate circle of people who are close to you, or who have something positive to offer, telling others about your diagnosis should be on a “need to know” basis. No one is entitled to have information you don’t want to give out. Women have gone through entire breast cancer treatments, including surgery, while their co-workers remained unaware of what was going on.
Dealing with Employers
When you return to work, you may encounter discrimination on the grounds that people who have cancer take too many sick days, are poor insurance risks, or will make co-workers uncomfortable.
How can you deal with these issues? Sometimes all it takes is a little education by you. Reassure those concerned that if you do need time off, you will probably be able to schedule it in advance. Once your treatment is over, you will be able to resume your work as before, and are not likely to have unexpected sick days any more frequently than your co-workers. Explain to everyone that cancer is absolutely not contagious.
Under Federal law, most employers cannot discriminate against disabled workers, including people with cancer. These laws apply to Federal employers, employers that receive Federal funds, and private companies with 25 or more employees. State laws also forbid discrimination based on handicap, but only some protect people with cancer.
If you are applying for a job with a government agency or a firm with government contracts, and believe you did not get the job because of your cancer, you can file a complaint with the Department of Justice.
If you believe you were discriminated against by a private employer because of your cancer, you should file your complaint with the closest regional office of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.