The first time Maria Victoria Colibao saw her bald head in the mirror, she lost it. "I stayed inside the bathroom for more than an hour. When I got out, I was sobbing like a child," Colibao remembers.
What would a family do in such a scene? The Colibao's did the unexpected: They laughed at her. "Instead of taking pity on me, they burst into laughter. My daughter said, ‘No, Mommy. Cool nga, e.’"
Cruel? Definitely not. Cancer survivor Colibao says that was how she needed her family to behave during those times she was getting treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Sharing the burden
Oncologists Cora Llave, M.D. and Denky Dela Rosa, M.D., agree. The family is a cancer patient's best ally in fighting the Big C, they told HealthToday.
“Cancer is a disease of the family,” says Dr. Dela Rosa. “Whenever a patient is stricken with cancer, the whole family is affected … emotionally, psychologically, financially, as well as physically because there are patients that have to be carried from the wheelchair to the bed.”
But there is no hard-and-fast rule on how they should treat the patient. "The most important thing is you are present,” Dr. Dela Rosa emphasizes. “How you should be present in a cancer patient's life is a case to case basis, depending on the personality of the cancer patient.”
"If they had been the type who would take pity on me, who would feel bad about my situation, I wouldn't have been so strong," Colibao reveals.
In many cases, family members don't know how to deal with the situation, says Dr. Llave, who also has two cancer-stricken relatives, making her the family’s medical authority for advice regarding their behavior towards sick loved ones.
Whether the cancer patient prefers the routine or an extra special treatment, here's a general guide for family members.
Be there for them
It cannot be overemphasized: Presence is important, as cancer patients need all the emotional support they can get. “Be present during the doctor’s consult, during times when the patient is experiencing complications from the treatment or from the disease itself. Be there for emotional support," says Dr. Dela Rosa.
"Depression is really one of the possibilities. When the patient comes in, I also evaluate if he or she is on the verge of depression," she adds.
There is a stage for grief—but it must also end at some point.
It helps to keep as much normalcy as possible. Colibao shares, "[Despite] my cancer, [my family’s] routine remained the same. In the beginning [I felt] like they never cared, only to find out later on, it worked to my advantage." Now active in helping cancer patients, she adds that "Changing routines could discourage the patient. If the patients used to jog every day, encourage her to continue jogging."
Understand the disease
“It's still common for cancer patients to think that they will die,” says Dr. Llave. Because of their condition, big and small changes in their bodies can upset them. Family members will greatly help if they understand the progression of the patient's disease and treatment.
Online research helps a lot, points out Dr. Dela Rosa, mentioning the plethora of online information on cancer. Nevertheless, be wary about what you read. Some cancer patients can become “very negative because of what they read in the Internet," she says. Family members should read up on the disease so they can correct or balance the information that patients might be reading in online.
Patience is crucial. There are times when family members don't understand the patient.
"A patient will not eat, not because she doesn’t want to eat per se, but because of the tumor burden. It prevents the patient from having [an] appetite,” explains Dr. Dela Rosa, saying that it's a common source of distress for the families. “[If] the patient is not eating, they will cook the patient's favorite food. But the patient would eat two or three spoons of it. Kung di mo naiintindihan ang situation, magagalit ka. Sasabihin mo, ipinamalengke ko pa yan tapos dalawang subo lang. Relatives shouldn't take it personally. It's the disease making the patient that way."