Understanding Reactions to Your Mesothelioma Diagnosis
- Cancer & Caregiving
- Aug. 24, 2016
Having mesothelioma can change many elements of a person’s life, including physical appearance, emotional well-being and relationships with other people.
My father endured many physical changes, such as weight loss and hair loss, and emotions took a toll on his mental state. His diagnosis also affected many of his relationships. Perhaps one of the most startling changes was the way people interacted with him after hearing the news of his cancer.
It can be unnerving to hear someone you love faces an illness, especially a serious one. When our family heard the news, we all reacted differently. My mom put on a happy face for my dad, but when she wasn’t hiding her emotions, she was visibly devastated.
My brother displayed solemn strength, while my sister avoided any display of emotion. Household chores masked my fears and worry.
Just as we are all different people, our reaction to disturbing news like a mesothelioma diagnosis will differ as well. My family took the news in a different way. Dad’s diagnosis rocked the entire family, but we didn’t shy away from him or each other.
Reactions from Loved Ones to a Mesothelioma Diagnosis
People can react in unexpected ways upon hearing about a loved one having cancer. Understanding how loved ones respond to the cancer diagnosis can help patients process behaviors people may exhibit.
Dad’s diagnosis shocked some of our relatives into silence. They didn’t call or visit. At the time, I didn’t understand why, and it angered me.
But now I understand. Their reactions back then, which seemed abnormal to me, were actually completely normal under the circumstances. When we encounter situations that make us uncomfortable, some of us exit the situation altogether. Others might behave awkwardly or act in a patronizing manner.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology identifies some of the ways friends and family might react to cancer.
- Shock: Learning that someone close has cancer can be an alarming reminder that it can happen to anyone. While a diagnosis most certainly shocks the person with the disease, some loved ones may experience similar emotions.
- Painful Memories: When someone, who has experienced cancer personally or with a loved one, hears about a more recent diagnosis, they may recall painful memories. The news may also scare them. Keep in mind their reactions have more to do with their past experiences, not your personal journey.
- Overwhelmed & Overbearing: A cancer diagnosis may overwhelm friends and family with worry, causing them to become hypervigilant. They may want to watch over you and help you all the time — even if you don’t need or want their assistance.
Finding how to work through these first few awkward encounters engages families and friends in supportive and beneficial ways for the journey ahead. Good communication can help break through these behaviors.
Solid relationships are vital for taking good care of a loved one facing mesothelioma. Social withdrawal and isolation is detrimental to emotional well-being. From my personal experience, relying on friends and loved ones for emotional support is very comforting.
Steps to Increase Understanding & Acceptance
Rather than avoiding a loved one facing cancer, raising your level of acceptance and understanding is usually beneficial.
Those who learn about a loved one’s recent diagnosis should comprehend some of the physical and emotional changes patients may experience.
Knowing what to expect when visiting a person with cancer may ease some of the stress and shock. The toll cancer takes on the body is evident soon after diagnosis. Side effects of cancer treatments, such as alopecia and weight loss, drastically alter physical appearances.
Because cancer also affects a patient’s emotions, your loved one may likely behave differently than before.
The American Cancer Society offers some tips to ease the stress of those first encounters with a newly diagnosed loved one.
- Don’t advise your loved one, especially if they aren’t asking you: Being knowledgeable and understanding about your loved one’s illness does not make you an oncologist. Be respectful and supportive of their decisions.
- Don’t avoid discussing the illness: Talking about your loved one’s cancer journey in a direct manner can help break the ice and soften the subject.
- Don’t patronize: Adding an uncustomary “honey” or “sweetie” to your verbal communication can unsettle your loved one. Try talking and behaving as you did before the diagnosis.
Learning from Experience
My daughter recently was diagnosed with appendicitis, and the ordeal reminded me just how easy it is to let an illness change the way we treat the ones we love.
She had an emergency appendectomy, and I went into mother-bear mode. I hadn’t noticed the change until she asked me to stop treating her like a baby.
In my efforts to be supportive and comforting, I had become patronizing and overprotective. My daughter’s reminder was a reality check. After realizing my mistake, I returned to my role as the mother of an independent pre-teen spending some time in the hospital.
When families face a mesothelioma journey, it is important to remember how much we need each other.
The initial diagnosis is shocking to everyone, especially the patient. It is imperative for friends and family to adjust so they accompany their loved one on their journey. Remember, mesothelioma doesn’t change the significance of person in the lives of those who love them.
See your loved ones for who they are, not the battles they fight.
Melanie is currently pursuing a Master's degree at the University of the Cumberlands. She has a Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of Phoenix. Her father was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1992. She is dedicated to writing about her unique experience with the rare disease.
- American Cancer Society. (2016, April 29). When Someone You Know Has Cancer. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.org/treatment/understandingyourdiagnosis/talkingaboutcancer/when-someone-you-know-has-cancer1
- Cancer.net. (2014, July). Family Life. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/talking-with-family-and-friends/family-life