Supporting a loved one through terminal cancer

Mon, 18 Nov 2019

A year-long cancer awareness project was launched in the East Riding at the start of the year to help support residents through what could be one of the toughest times in their lives.

Supporting a loved one through terminal cancer can often be difficult and a taboo subject that people often don’t want to talk about.

With so many of us experiencing cancer, or the effects of cancer in a loved one, it’s important to talk about it and know what help and support is available in the East Riding.

As part of this, East Riding of Yorkshire Council has been working through a number of cancer-related topics throughout the year which focus on the different types of cancer, the signs and symptoms and what residents can do to support each other.

Part of the support residents can give to their loved ones is being there for them when their diagnosis is terminal.

Hearing that an illness cannot be cured can be a scary ordeal to go through and it’s often helpful to have the support of a family member or friend at the consultation to help retain some of the information.

The GP will know of any local support and advice that is available about the particular cancer, the financial benefits the resident is entitled to and support groups and counselling available.

Helen Dunn, Macmillan Specialist Palliative Care Social Worker, said: “We offer practical and emotional support with any issue (non-medical) which is affecting the wellbeing of a person. 

“Support could include advanced care planning or support with Wills and funeral planning, how or when to talk to children and planning for the future care of children.

“We also support with employment, housing or immigration issues and accessing appropriate benefits. We can offer bereavement support but will most often assist people to access other appropriate support services as needed.”


What to do if you have been diagnosed with terminal cancer

Some people may feel like their life is out of their control and they may feel an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty.

There may be questions and worries about the future, such as how and when their body is going to change, the effect this will have on their independence and relationships, financial worries and how much time may be left.

This can be upsetting and it is normal to feel this way. It might be helpful to talk with others who are in a similar situation and hear how they cope with these feelings. The local support groups in the East Riding can help with this and many specialist charities have information on how to deal with the diagnosis.

Some people find it helpful to take one day at a time and decide on small, achievable goals in order to gain confidence, for example by putting family photos into an album or visiting a friend. There are still bigger issues to consider, such as where to receive care in the future, but these don’t have to be tackled all at once.

Other people find it helpful to write down their questions and worries to take control of their feelings. This can begin a process of deciding what is important to them and how to tackle issues that may concern them. This can also help some people to talk things over with their family, friends and carers.

An important part for people to remember is to take some time to do the things they enjoy to look after themselves, such as getting a massage, aromatherapy, reading a book, etc. This may help the person to look after themselves, as well as help the people looking after them see that they are looking after themselves. It could also be something that they do together with their loved ones to spend quality time with them.

Accept offers of help from friends and family and give specific examples of support needed and wanted. For example, help with shopping, agreeing to them bringing some meals to put in the freezer or help with driving to and from appointments.

Professor Russell Patmore, consultant haematologist and medical director at Castle Hill Hospital, said: “Being given a terminal diagnosis will be devastating for you and your family.

“You will almost certainly be frightened about what the future holds and find it impossible to think clearly about things.

“The most important advice that I can give is to find a way to talk about how you feel. This can be really hard as you will be worried about upsetting those that you love and fearful for them as well.

“You may well feel guilty about the effects that your illness is having on those around you and sometimes it just feels easier and kinder to bottle things up and try to cope with all of the turmoil you are feeling by yourself.

“If you can find the strength, try not to fall into that trap. Your friends and family will want to talk about things as well but may not start conversations as they don’t want to upset you or risk making things worse.

“If you start talking to them then it allows you to explore how you all feel and talk about the real things that you are all worried about. It helps you to make plans for the time that you do have, which will help to make good memories that will live on with them.

“Importantly, it gives you the chance to support those you love at a time when it is easy to feel that you have nothing to offer them except pain. Talking can be really powerful and in my experience is the one thing that helps people in this awful situation get the most out of the living that they have left to do.

“Remember that the people that you care about will be upset when you talk about things. In reality they will be upset already but may be trying to hide it to try to protect you. You will also be likely to get upset but try not to step back. It’s OK to be upset, how could you not be? It shows how much you care and means that you are talking about the things that really matter.

“If you avoid the upset then often the important conversations never happen. Once you have talked about things people usually feel better and it gets much easier to carry on talking.

“The doctors and nurses are there to help. Don’t be shy of discussing your worries with them, no matter how odd they might seem to you. Understanding your feelings helps them to support you. They can also help you in the difficult conversations with those around you if you are finding it hard.”


What to do if a loved one or friend has been diagnosed with terminal cancer

When a family member or friend is diagnosed with a terminal illness it can be a shock for the people around them. There may be feelings of a range of different emotions and there may be concerns about how to help and support them, as well as what to say to them.

Listening to them and giving them the full attention they need is important and whilst people may not know the right thing to say to someone, often just being there for them will help.

People approaching the end of life stage of their diagnosis often want to hold on to an aspect of normality and this could include maintaining friendships, so it is important to have the same relationship with them as before.

Some people want to talk about their diagnosis and others don’t want to talk at all. A safe way to approach the topics is to ask a question such as “Is there anything on your mind at the moment that may be worrying you?” or “would you like to talk about anything today?”

This then gives the person the chance to talk if they want to, but also not to be reminded of it if they are trying to focus on something else.

Offering to do jobs for your loved one is another way to support them. Offer a list of things you could do and let them choose one that they would be comfortable with you helping with, such as getting some shopping for them, driving them to appointments, walking the dog or having a special day out with them and eating meals together etc.

Sometimes people prefer not to accept help as keeping busy may be an important coping mechanism for them, but it could help them to know you are there for them.


What to do after the death of a loved one

Losing a loved one affects everyone differently and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. There are lots of ways to get support and residents don’t have to go through bereavement alone.

John Skidmore, director of adults, health and customer services at East Riding of Yorkshire Council, said: Everyone deals with loss and bereavement differently and it’s important to know that it’s okay not to be okay.

“Allowing yourself to feel sad is a healthy part of the grieving process and some people find that talking about it is often a good way to help alleviate the pain.”

Visit happyandwell.me to find out more information about where to go for support or visit www.eastriding.gov.uk/living/deaths/registration/ to register a death in the East Riding.

To become involved in the project as a partner or case study, contact Kimberley Nichol by emailing Kimberley.nichol@eastriding.gov.uk or call (01482) 391444.

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