People react in different ways when they learn they have cancer. Feelings can be muddled and change quickly. This is quite normal and there’s no right or wrong way to feel. It may be helpful to talk about your feelings with your partner, family members, friends, or with a counsellor, social worker, psychologist, or your religious/spiritual adviser. Talking to other people with cancer may also help.
“I have five things that I hope for-things to make me happy during the day (could be flowers or a great cup of coffee), five things to give thanks for (‘thank you for being my friend’). I make them happen. Once you do that you can start a new life.” June
It is usually best to tell your family and your closest friends about your cancer sooner rather than later. Some people worry that older people in the family or children will not cope with the news. But if you do not tell your family, they will probably know that something is wrong and then think things are much worse than they are.
Sometimes you may find your friends and family do not know what to say to you: they may have difficulty with their feelings as well. Some people may feel so uncomfortable they avoid you. They may expect you to lead the way and tell them what you need. You may feel able to approach your friends directly and tell them what you need, or you may prefer to ask a close family member or friend to talk to other people for you.
Anyone you tell needs time to take it in and to come back with his or her questions and fears - just like you. You can help them to adjust just as they can help you. But remember that while you are having treatment your needs should come first. If you do not feel like talking, say so. If there are practical things they can do to help, say so. If you cannot cope with any more visitors, say so. Some friends are better at doing something practical to help (for example, making meals, or picking up children from school), than they are at sitting and talking. Some find it so difficult that they may stop visiting for a while. Everyone is different.
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, routines and family roles may change. The person who was the major source of income might now be unable to work and may be dependent on others. A partner who was sharing chores may now have to take on extra tasks or get a job. Maintaining your usual social life and hobbies and interests may be difficult or impossible for a while.
Cancer is not a normal event so it is important to acknowledge this and to not try to carry on with everything as before.
There are a number of ways that may help you manage.
- Prepare simpler meals.
- Be more relaxed about housekeeping standards.
- Ask children to help more around the house.
How much you tell children will depend on how old they are. Young children need to know that it is not their fault. They also need to know that you may have to go into hospital. Slightly older children can probably understand a simple explanation of what is wrong. Adolescent children can understand much more.
All children need to know what will happen to them while you are in hospital, who will look after them, and how their daily life will be affected.
Sometimes children rebel or become quiet. Keep an eye on them or get someone else to, and get help if you need it; for example, from the school counsellor or a hospital social worker. The Cancer Society has a booklet titled Cancer in the Family: Talking to your family that you may find useful. Phone your local Cancer Society office for a copy of this booklet, call the cancer information nurses on the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237), or download it from our website.
“Having friends that allow me to talk: I don’t have to actually protect them all the time. I don’t have to protect my husband. I hand over things that I always took control of: I was the one to ferry the kids around, organise the meals, but they can do it.” Colleen
Your local Cancer Society provides confidential information and support. Local centres offer a range of services for people with cancer and their families/whanau.
These may include:
- volunteer drivers providing transport to treatment
- support and education groups
The range of services offered differs in each region so contact your local Cancer Society and speak to support services staff to find out what is available, or phone the cancer information nurses on the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237).
“The Helpline was great. I rang and said ‘Help! I can’t do this on my own." Arthette
- Cancer Connect NZ: If you'd like to talk to someone who has been through a similar experience, the Cancer Society can help. It doesn’t matter where you live in New Zealand—all you need is access to a phone. Cancer Connect NZ arranges telephone peer support calls for people living with cancer and their caregivers. Every Cancer Connect NZ peer supporter has had cancer, or cared for a loved one living with cancer. Cancer Connect NZ is a free support service which provides information, and the opportunity to talk to someone whose life has been affected by cancer.
- Cancer Chat is an online/support and information forum (www.cancerchatnz.org.nz).
“You’re in a secret club, but a really compassionate club. They know how you’re feeling and I touch people more now.” June
“I needed to know that I had an action plan for focusing with. I knew there would be an action plan for me there at the Cancer Society.” Sue
Cancer support groups offer mutual support and information to people with cancer and often to their families/whanau. It can help to talk with others who have gone through the same experience. Support groups can also offer many practical suggestions and ways of coping. Ask your hospital or local Cancer Society for information on cancer support groups in your area.
Nursing care is available at home through district nursing or your local hospital or hospice–your cancer doctor or hospital can arrange this. You may be entitled to assistance with household tasks during your illness. For information on the availability of this assistance, contact your hospital social worker or Community Health Service.
Palliative care services have particular expertise in dealing with pain and other symptoms. They can offer emotional support to you and your family/whanau at all stages of your illness. These services may be offered by your local hospital or hospice.
Complementary therapy is a term used to describe any treatment or therapy that is not part of the conventional treatment of a disease.
- Māori remedies
- positive imagery
- spiritual healing
- relaxation therapy/meditation
Alternative therapy is a term used to describe any treatment or therapy that may be used as an alternative to conventional treatments.
- Chinese herbs
It is important to let your cancer doctor know if you are taking any complementary or alternative therapies because some treatments may be harmful if they are taken at the same time as conventional treatments.
Some people find improvements to their quality of life and sense of wellbeing from complementary and alternative therapies. However, at present there is no evidence that such therapies can cure cancer or extend the life of people who have cancer.
“Art feeds my soul. I follow my passion. It sustains me and feeds me. It’s all connected with Whakapapa and Maori spirituality.” Mihi
Help may be available for transport and accommodation costs if you are required to travel some distance to your medical and treatment appointments. Your treatment centre or local Cancer Society can advise you about what sort of help is available.
Financial help may be available through your local Work and Income office. Work and Income (0800 559 009) has pamphlets and information about financial assistance for people who are unable to work. Short-term financial help is available through the Sickness Benefit and longer-term help is provided through the Invalids Benefit. Extra help may be available; for example, through accommodation supplements and assistance with medical bills.
New Zealand’s Health and Disability Code states that everyone has the right to have an interpreter present during a medical consultation. Family or friends may assist if you and your cancer doctor do not speak the same language, but you can also ask your cancer doctor to provide an interpreter if using family members is inappropriate or not possible.