World Cancer Day: Here's why having positive attitude in family helps patient
They may sometimes feel weighed down by everything. One needs to remember that there are no 'correct' words for such a situation that are going to immediately change the patient's emotions or outlook
When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, it is normal to experience shock, denial, fear, anxiety, and low mood. Often dealing with one's own emotions makes it difficult to know what to say to the patient or how to say it, and could lead to one avoiding the patient or discussion of the diagnosis. The patient is also most likely dealing with the same emotions mentioned earlier in addition to dealing with the physical concerns. They may sometimes feel weighed down by everything. One needs to remember that there are no 'correct' words for such a situation that are going to immediately change the patient's emotions or outlook. However, it is important to convey that you are with them every step of the way.
Anxiety, depression, stress, poor social support are some of the factors that increase the rate of re-admission and duration of hospital stay. This is because anxiety and depression increase cortisol levels which produce an immuno-compromised state. Increased levels of anxiety can also increase co-morbidities such as hypertension.
While it is important to remain positive, it is also important to remember you and the patient are allowed to experience other emotions and express the same. A number of studies have been conducted on the correlation between positivity and cancer, and none have found that positive thinking alone cures a person. However, being positive helps you cope with a diagnosis that hits you out of the blue and can require aggressive treatment.
I have worked with multiple patients who report that their families tell them that all they need to beat the cancer is to remain positive. This makes them feel guilty that they aren't doing enough, and this guilt sometimes results in irritation or anger over seemingly trivial issues. In addition, the 'being positive' aspect also makes well-wishers say things such as "Don't worry. Don't think about xyz. Just stay positive". This adds to the patient's stress as they aren't allowed a release plus they may feel their feelings are being invalidated or unimportant making them ruminate more inwardly.
Instead, validate their feelings by saying you understand how it's difficult to not think about xyz so that they may continue to discuss their feelings or worries with you. This could help you understand the root of their concerns and maybe find a solution for the same. Even if you don't find a solution, it still helps ease the patient's anxiety and gives them a way to vent. Allow the patient and yourself to cry when needed – tears serve as a natural response to distress. It is easier to be optimistic when you don't feel caged by your emotions and thoughts.
Having said that, being surrounded by positive people and positive energy can make the diagnosis and treatment seem more manageable. Friends and family who can brighten your mood just by being present allow the patient to talk freely, and thus make the difficult decisions appear a little easier. Sometimes, just holding hands or giving a hug may also help.
Cognitive reframing may also help easing a bad situation. Cognitive reframing is basically changing the way you think about and look at a situation so that you see the glass as half full rather than half empty. You could use humour to do this as well, but be sensitive as it doesn't work with everybody. A good example of using humour was when a patient gave me a wry smile and told me about how chemotherapy was saving her a ton of money in haircuts! One may not always believe this reframed statement or situation, saying it aloud may increase your belief and thus your positivity over time.
Something I often ask patients and relatives is, "What are the chances that your anxiety will change the results of this scan?" Some have replied saying "it can't change anything and may worsen other parameters." Most of us are aware of this and still get anxious. Instead, we should try to seek joy in what we have. While being positive may not cure the cancer, it would definitely make it easier for you and your loved ones to be happy while fighting the cancer.
Eventually, a positive attitude catches on, and you can help your loved one retain their positive attitude through the entire treatment process, and win the battle.
-By Ritika S Aggarwal, Consultant Psychologist, Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre
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