An important part of the carer’s role can be to provide emotional support to the person with cancer. You might want to talk to them about their cancer diagnosis and treatment, but not know how. This may be because you:
- fear saying the wrong thing
- don’t know what to say or how to respond
- feel you shouldn’t talk about the cancer
- don’t want to say something upsetting
- feel you have to be supportive and strong for the person with cancer, and worry you could become emotional.
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It’s likely the person you’re caring for will experience a range of strong emotions. It can help to ask if they would like to talk. Sometimes they might talk openly about how they’re feeling. Or they may prefer not to share their thoughts, and it’s important to respect this. They may also try to hide their feelings because they don’t want to upset you.
It’s natural to have disagreements from time to time, especially when you’re both under stress. Try to understand how a cancer diagnosis can affect how a person feels and behaves. Although dealing with conflict can be hard, it can also bring you closer together and help you understand each other’s point of view.
While you may be the main source of emotional support, you can encourage the person you’re caring for to speak to family members, friends or health professionals who can provide emotional support in different but valuable ways.
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Ways to be a good listener
- Sit somewhere private where you will not be interrupted.
- Make it clear that you are there for as long as needed, e.g. switch off your mobile phone.
- Maintain eye contact.
- Listen carefully to what may be behind the words. Try not to think about something else or plan what you will say next.
- Acknowledge that this is a difficult time. Ask open questions to help you understand how the other person is feeling.
- Avoid interrupting or changing the subject.
- Allow the person to be sad, upset or cry. You don’t have to keep them happy all the time.
- Check your understanding of what they’ve said by repeating information or paraphrasing.
- Wait to be asked before giving advice.
- Use humour to relieve tension.
Ways to resolve conflict
- Let the other person know that you care about them and want to resolve your differences.
- Try to talk through the issues calmly. Hear each other out and work towards a solution, rather than seeing the other person as the problem.
- Compare your expectations. For example, some people with advanced cancer choose to stop having treatment. You may find this hard to accept if you feel they are giving up and you want them to try other options.
- Choose your battles – it may help to focus your energy on the issues that really matter.
- If a discussion becomes heated, take a break and talk later when you are both calmer.
- Arrange for others to take on the caring role for a short time.
- Ask your GP or treatment team for a referral to a social worker, counsellor or psychologist who can help you manage the conflict.
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Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Dr Laura Kirsten, Principal Clinical Psychologist, Nepean Cancer Care Centre, NSW; Mary Bairstow, Senior Social Worker, Cancer Centre, Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA; Anne Booms, Nurse Practitioner – Supportive and Palliative Care, Icon Cancer Centre Midland, WA; Dr Erica Cameron-Taylor, Staff Specialist, Department of Palliative Care, Mercy Hospice, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW; Tracey Gardner, Senior Psychologist, Cancer Counselling Service, Cancer Council Queensland; Louise Good, Cancer Nurse Consultant, WA; Verity Jausnik, Senior Policy Officer, Carers Australia; David Larkin, Cancer Supportive Care Manager, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, Canberra Hospital and Health Service, ACT; Kate Martin, Consumer; John McMath, Consumer; Simone Noelker, Physiotherapist and Wellness Centre Coordinator, Ballarat Regional Integrated Cancer Centre, VIC; Tara Redemski, Senior Physiotherapist – Cancer Care, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD; Dean Rowe, Consumer; Chris Sibthorpe, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland.
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