How do I deal with friends and family who want to take over now that they know I have cancer?

Family, communication, depression, anxiety, relationships

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AZBodyMindCounseling (Professional Therapist (Verified) ) - 07 / 19 / 2011

This is a question I get asked from time to time. The person with a cancer diagnosis has somehow gone from independent person to helpless victim in an instant in the eyes of well-meaning family and friends after the utterance of a few little words, "I have cancer."

The first thing I suggest is that the person with cancer see these friends and family as well-meaning and totally clueless as to what kind of help they can provide or how to be supportive without keeping cancer as the topic of conversation. Remember they are learning about your diagnosis and may be struggling to understand what it means just like you. They may also be reacting to their own past and an experience with another friend or family member who also had a serious illness. Some of them may have guilt about how they have treated you before your diagnosis and they are trying to make amends. Give them thanks and share your gratitude. Praise them for their work and they will gradually feel like they can step back and let things get back to normal.

In most cases I suggest telling them the truth as you and they are prepared to hear it. Be factual, maybe even clinical but spare the gorey details. Emphasize what your strengths are and what you are capable of doing. Don't try to be super-wo/man. Allow others to do for you to keep them occupied and out of your hair. But set boundaries to respect your own independence. If they get under foot, send them out on a snipe hunt at the store. Let them feel useful even if it's a rouse.

Reassure them that you will call and ask for help when you need it and then do so, so they trust you (then they will relax and allow you to spend some time alone when you want it).

I've often heard that the older we get the more we become who we always were. So if you have someone in your family who's alwasy been a big meddler, they will be even more when they are under stress and as they age. Anticipate who might be more problematic for you to manage and get some help from other friends and family to manage that person's involvement. Assign someone to keep them busy or take them out to eat so you can rest and not have to battle with the over-active mensch.

Understand that you are likely to be hyper-sensitive to this attention and help because you are seeking to control as much of your life as you can following a diagnosis that threatens your independence. Fighting over who does the dishes or takes out the trash isn't relenquishing all of your power. It's just a few dishes and some trash. Pick your battles. If you do need some help and want to feel powerful, set up a routine that tells others when and how to do the things you need done. And then let them do it. You are still in control. You always will be even when you choose to let others do for you.

It's your choice. Use it wisely.
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