When my grandfather was diagnosed with colon cancer, our family went through a difficult time. We weren’t sure how to move forward. My grandfather was a stubborn and charming man. Like many cancer patients, he didn’t want to go through chemo—yet was willing to try it for the sake of survival. We supported him as best we could, shuttling to and from the hospital daily. I often wondered whether he would’ve chosen differently if he could do it all again. But something I learned is that there’s no right or wrong way to handle cancer. An illness like this doesn’t just affect one person, it affects an entire family: you need to walk—and talk—through it together. At the beginning of a cancer diagnosis, there are a few ways to encourage open discussion about cancer options.
Four Steps to Communicating About Cancer Options
1. Accompany your loved one to their doctor’s appointments
Cancer is scary enough without additional confusion. While the doctor should explain several different cancer treatment options, and offer their recommendation (along with the reasoning behind it), this can be a lot to absorb for one person. Where possible, accompany your loved one to their doctor’s appointment to hear the information firsthand. Sometimes patients don’t feel comfortable discussing details with their doctor, or asking questions. Having someone else there is invaluable: this person can get all the relevant info, prod further if something doesn’t make sense, and provide assistance where needed. Research has shown that having another person in the room—whether a family member or professional caregiver—really helps.
2. Help your loved one gather information about their diagnosis
One of the best ways to help your loved one explore their treatment options is to get information. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to all happen at the doctor’s office—there’s a lot that patients and family members can now research on their own. Depending on how tech-savvy your loved one is, you can help them by looking online for the most up-to-date cancer treatment info. If you have friends with aging parents who have gone through cancer, reach out and listen to their suggestions. The more you know about your loved one’s condition and possible treatments, the better you’ll be able to support them in making their choice.
3. Talk compassionately with your loved one
Offering your loved one empathy and compassion when discussing cancer treatment options can provide them with reassurance and clarity during this difficult time. From the very start (when they’re first diagnosed) and throughout the process, set aside plenty of one-on-one time with your loved one. Beforehand, you might consider speaking with other family members to hear everyone’s opinion. When you talk with your loved one, choose a quiet setting. Sit down in a comfortable space, and offer physical touch, like holding hands, for reassurance.
Make sure the discussion is focused on finding out how your loved one feels—and what they want. This means listening deeply to their words, as well as observing their body language. Do their facial expressions appear stressed? Is their speaking tone relaxed or anxious? Are they looking down or directly at you? Let them talk without interruption and give lots of space for silence. Set aside your own opinion about treatment options for the moment; create a supportive space where your loved one can share their feelings without judgment. Otherwise, they might not feel comfortable expressing their true feelings. Lastly, encourage your loved to share any fears, and ask questions.
If your aging loved one prefers a treatment option that your doctor hasn’t suggested—or doesn’t support—consider following up with the doctor about this or researching alternatives. There are so many different approaches to cancer treatment, including opting out of treatment entirely. You can make sure your loved one has all the information in hand and has heard your perspective, but in the end, the decision should be theirs. If the family disagrees with your loved one’s choice of treatment, discuss it calmly—away from your loved one. It’s okay for arguments to happen, so long as they’re not affecting the patient’s stress level. Seeing a family counselor can be useful for families struggling to come to an agreement.
4. Seek external support
Cancer is challenging in ways we don’t expect. To get through it, it can help to rally support from friends and family members. Find out if there’s a local support group for older adults with cancer. Having social interaction with people experiencing similar challenges can make all the difference. It may also help to find a support group for yourself or your family members; the emotional weight of this experience is often too much to take on alone. Be attentive to how your loved one is behaving on a day-to-day basis. If they appear to be suffering from depression or anxiety related to the illness, consider a therapist.
While this is undoubtedly a challenging journey, there are a few ways you and your family can help your loved one navigate the process. By being well-informed and focusing on compassionate communication, caregivers and family members can support their aging loved one. My grandfather ended up living a few more years after he was first diagnosed, and that time was beyond precious to our family. Open, compassionate communication made it possible to handle the situation with a little grace… and a lot of courage. We rallied around him and pulled together. In the end, it was a hard journey that brought us closer to both him and each other.
If you want to help your aging loved one cope with cancer, Institute on Aging offers resources from on-site support groups to at-home caregivers, so you and your loved one have access to the support you need. Contact us today to learn how we can help you.