Counseling Can Help Families Cope with Mesothelioma
January 8, 2019
I suppose reflection comes along with being a therapist.
As I look back on my family’s experience with mesothelioma, I now understand the positive impact of mental health therapy for families dealing with cancer.
Hearing the diagnosis, watching my father endure treatments and eventually succumb to the illness profoundly affected each member of my family.
Admittedly, we didn’t have healthy coping strategies to deal with all we faced.
In a recent publication, the American Counseling Association highlights many of the emotions experienced by family members affected by a loved one’s cancer diagnosis.
Those in the mesothelioma community are likely well-versed with the strains on family relationships brought on by the diagnosis. Negative emotions such as anxiety, fear and bewilderment seem universal for those affected by the rare cancer.
When people think about cancer-related counseling, they likely think of a patient rather than the family members. However, all family members may find comfort and improve their physical and mental well-being by taking advantage of counseling.
Learning the right skills to cope with heightened emotions, strained relationships, stress and anxiety may yield a positive effect for those affected by cancer.
Cancer’s Impact on Family Members
Some 25 years after losing my father, the impact of his journey with mesothelioma is still very real for my family.
When faced with a crisis, many families respond as my family did — seemingly running in circles with their hair on fire.
Therapy sessions might have helped us develop healthier coping strategies to deal with Dad’s cancer.
In the American Counseling Association article, marriage and family therapist Maya Pandit illustrates the suffering experienced by those who love someone diagnosed with cancer.
The article further discusses the initial emotional responses commonly experienced by family members upon hearing the diagnosis:
- Avoidance: Following a difficult diagnosis, an avoidant family member might act as though nothing is wrong. They may refuse to acknowledge hearing the diagnosis or pretend the diagnosis means nothing. This is a maladaptive coping strategy implemented to blunt the emotional pain caused by a loved one’s diagnosis. To ignore the bad news is to ignore the fear and anxiety that accompanies it.
- Hypervigilance: By definition, hypervigilance means functioning in a state of heightened alertness. This emotional response opposes avoidance entirely. A hypervigilant family member focuses on the cancer while ignoring most other aspects of life such as relationships, daily activities and interacting with others.
Upon first hearing of my father’s diagnosis, I became avoidant. I didn’t want to think of my Dad as a “sick” person or “cancer patient.”
Oddly, I rapidly transitioned to hypervigilance when I realized I couldn’t ignore Dad’s cancer.
I shifted my focus solely on his mesothelioma. Rather than seeing him as my father, he was a cancer patient whom I loved.
This maladaptive coping strategy allowed me to focus on everything except my feelings.
Family Members’ Emotional Experience
Just as many other families, we felt guilty for experiencing negative emotions related to Dad’s cancer.
As the article pinpoints, the environmental and relational stressors presented by a cancer diagnosis can wreak emotional havoc on family members as well as patients.
Some issues that may emerge include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Difficulty with decision making
- Increased irritability
- Sleep difficulties
- Feelings of sadness
- Physical symptoms such as nausea and headache
Counseling Can Help
Loved ones who cohesively support each other may be better prepared to care for their loved one who is facing cancer.
Identifying and meeting physical and emotional needs during a cancer-related crisis can be difficult.
Clinical mental health counselors can help families detect unmet needs, address underlying familial conflicts, develop adaptive coping strategies, help ease the stress of changing roles, and assist families in adapting to their new environment.
Family members frequently disregard their emotional and physical needs out of guilt. They may feel guilty for feeling down or emotional as they are not the one diagnosed with cancer.
By presenting a judgment-free, therapeutic environment, mental health counselors can allow family members to openly address their thoughts and feelings such as anger, resentment, frustration and hopelessness they might not otherwise acknowledge.
While therapists don’t come equipped with magic wands to solve the world’s emotional problems, they do offer validation and support necessary to cope with a loved one’s cancer diagnosis.
Medical Family Therapy and ‘The Illness Story’
Families dealing with an aggressive cancer such as mesothelioma may benefit from a specialized form of family counseling called medical family therapy.
This type of therapy focuses on the emotional impact of physical illnesses on family members. Techniques employed in medical family therapy explores individual experiences as they relate to the family system.
Understanding each person’s experience of a loved one’s illness may unlock critical adaptive coping strategies necessary for emotional healing.
“The Illness Story” is an essential part of medical family therapy. This therapeutic element allows each family member to explore and address their personal thoughts and emotions that stem from their loved one’s diagnosis.
In session, a medical family therapist is likely to engage a client in an exploration of their innermost feelings attributed to their loved one’s diagnosis, their family’s pre-diagnostic functioning, relationship dynamics and underlying conflicts.
The ultimate goal of counseling families during a cancer-related crisis is to boost interfamilial support and aid family members in the development of adaptive coping strategies to prepare them for whatever lies ahead.
Equipping people with the right coping tools allows them to become a cohesive team of support for their loved one facing cancer and for each other.
My family’s mesothelioma story is not a model experience — rather a very real one — inclusive of all the raw emotions and struggles.
Our experience may mirror that of many other families. One positive I can pull from our struggle is the formidable strength I found when our family was at our lowest.
That brute strength carried us through our journey.