Coping With Emotions

How to Focus on the Positive (and Embrace the Good) When a Loved One Has Cancer

It's important to make time for life's celebrations, even when you're the caregiver for someone living with cancer.

It can be difficult to figure out how to focus on the positive when a loved one has cancer. In some circles, there seems to be an idea that expressing joy or celebrating life while a loved one is living with cancer would upset him or her during a stressful time. This isn’t necessarily the case.

It’s a mistake to assume that people with cancer expect or desire their loved ones to put their lives on hold for the duration of treatment. In fact, they might be offended if they found out you derailed your own joy because of their diagnosis. If you’re concerned about a sick loved one’s feelings about an upcoming life event, or even just a party or night out, it’s much more respectful and forthcoming to simply be open with your feelings and ask.

When You’re the Caregiver

You may feel you can’t participate in your own life while you’re engaged in the caregiving role. This is a difficult position, and you’re often thrust into it with no warning or advance preparation. Life gets put on hold, and you feel guilty about the parts of life you’re neglecting as well as any time you spend not tending to the needs of the person with cancer. It’s a common and frustrating situation.

You must take time to care for yourself when you’re the caregiver for someone with a serious illness. That might mean making arrangements for someone else to spend time with them while you go out and do something you enjoy. Your life doesn’t start back up again after this cancer crisis is over; your life is happening right now. If you allow yourself your own joy, you’ll be better able to approach your caregiving role as well.

When you have a big event coming up, like a birthday party or wedding, make your caregiving accommodations ahead of time so you can enjoy your moment stress-free. Just add it to the planning process. This may include not only enlisting a close friend or family member to take over caregiver duties but having a backup plan and person as well. Additionally, though it may seem silly, you can have someone, like a member of the wedding party, gently remind people to avoid the topic of cancer for the duration of the event and set ground rules so you can avoid the awkwardness.

And never be afraid to talk about these feelings with your therapist and trusted confidantes. They’re there to listen and help you sort out these complex emotions.

They Want to Celebrate, Too

In many cases, with a little extra planning, the cancer patient may even be able to participate in a celebration. If they can’t attend, perhaps they’re looking forward to enjoying the event vicariously through you. Record the event, and have family members send video messages to your loved one from the event, whether it’s text updates or Snapchat stories. Or at least take pictures and share them and your stories with your loved one after the event. Seeing the joy on your face as you describe the celebration will make them happy, too.

There’s plenty to worry about when you’re caring for someone with cancer, but life is full of high points as well. People get married, have babies, celebrate birthdays and graduate. There’s so much to celebrate. Don’t disregard the high points in favor of your worries. Keeping all of this in mind is how to focus on the positive during this time.

Taking care of yourself is part of being a good caregiver. UVA Cancer Center has an array of resources to help caregivers thrive while supporting their loved ones.

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Judy Schwartz Haley
Judy Schwartz Haley