Reactions to a Diagnosis of Cancer (Part 3)

Dr. Rick Wirtz Health Guide
  • During the past two weeks I have written about just a few of the reasons why people some times “shut down” or stop talking about their thoughts and feelings after receiving a diagnosis of cancer or some other life threatening disease. If you are a family member or loved one this can be very disturbing because you have no way of knowing for sure what’s going on in their head. This obviously can be the source of worry and concern about your loved one’s well-being.

    As I pointed out in the last two blogs, sometimes people just simply can’t talk about what’s going on or what they are feeling because they are afraid of what it might stir up for their family. At other times, it may be because they are afraid of what it might stir up in themselves. No matter which it might be, you may be able to make some headway by being the one who starts the ball rolling.
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    One of the ways to do this is to start to talk about what this has been like for you. You might describe how frightened and confused you’ve been at times or how you have been afraid to show what you’ve been thinking and feeling because you were worried that it might be too upsetting for them. You might mention how alone you have felt and how you’ve wondered if they were feeling that way too.

    By taking the lead in these conversations and showing that nothing is off limits you may be able to free up your loved one to put some of their thoughts and feelings into words.

    Another approach is to talk about what you’ve learned about how other people with cancer or life threatening illnesses handle their feelings. You can say things like “I’ve read that cancer patients sometimes don’t want to tell their families too much because they worry that it will upset them. Have you ever thought that?” Or you might say “I learned from a man with cancer that he doesn’t want his family to see him upset, crying, or angry because he doesn’t want them to feel the same things. Do you ever worry about that?”

    It is also very important to talk to your loved one about depression if you are afraid that they might be clinically depressed. Clearly, the best idea is to get them to go to their primary physician or oncologist / specialist and talk about their concerns about depression. The diagnosis can be a little complicated at times if the person is in treatment but with the right questions most medical professionals can make the call.

    If you can’t get your loved one to speak to his or her doctor you can do so yourself to express your concerns. Finally, there are a number of online screening tools that are a good place to start as a very preliminary assessment. One such site is . This site is sponsored by the National Mental Health Association.

    I hope some of these ideas will be helpful to you and your family.
Published On: December 15, 2006