Helping Cancer Patients: "The Heroes of our Time"

Helping Cancer Patients: "The Heroes of our Time"

Last update: 28 November, 2017

Cancer knocks at our door when no on expects it. The disease enters the scene everyday. It is the face of a coin that we never want to see. It all starts with the confirmation of a diagnosis. Then hundreds of questions assault without rest: Why me? We try to cling to life but there are times when the pain hits too hard. Helping cancer patients is complex.

Cancer has repercussions  on a person’s mental and physical health, even after treatment ends. The most common symptoms are exhaustion and psychological stress derived from the impact of the diagnosis and the intervention process. Other common problems are depression and anxiety, physical weakness, and attention and memory problems.

“You know, once you’ve stood up to cancer, everything else feels like a pretty easy fight.”

David H. Koch

The tyranny of social support

Nothing is as unique as pain. Nothing is as personal as that experience. As Thiebault said “Damage can be avoided, pain con not be avoided. Not all minds manage to integrate and deal with emotional or physical pain. And here is the paradox: the body remains silent when it does not hurt, but the mind hurts when it is silent. Cancer is a tough battle, and respecting the right of the sick to choose how they want to face it is essential. So is letting them communicate all their emotions, including feelings of defeat and exhaustion.

We often use expressions of support with the aim of giving encouragement and consolation. However, without realizing it, sometimes we generate demanding expectations instead. “You are a champion.” “Don’t worry, you’re strong.” In certain cases, by showing our affection with the best intentions, we impose the image of the “ill optimist.” As if patients and relatives are obligated to face the illness with all their enthusiasm and strength. Cancer is a tremendously difficult experience, you do not have to always put on a happy face. Leave room for pain and fear.

Supporting and giving love is very important, but we must be careful of what we say so we don’t give the patient an extreme example to follow and add more weight to their shoulders. It is a mistake to transform these people into “heroes” when we do so by stripping them of their human condition. The burden of their disease is enough. They need our company and support. We need to recognize their pain, accept their emotions, and value their efforts. We need to listen and attend to their needs. This the best help we can offer.

Equally important is giving their family members space to be angry, tired, and in pain. Do not corner them by making them feel they should “be proud” to be the parent, sibling, child, etc. of “such a fighter.” Of course, we should provide support, but we should give them space to fall and get back up.

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Cancer as a threat to survival

Finding out about a cancer diagnosis creates a strong stress response. There are 6 main fears of cancer patients: death, being dependent, disability, disruption in life, lack of comfort, and disfigurement. Receiving information is essential. patients who receive adequate information tailored to their needs have better control in their treatment process and are more cooperative and active through treatment. In this sense, the greater the uncertainty, the greater the discomfort.

This information must be realistic. It is a primary objective to solve all the doubts that the person has about the process. However, one must refrain from generating unfounded expectations or idealized hopes. Sometimes this occurs when we feel we must say something to convey unconditional support so we don’t fact check what we say. Remember, it is not always necessary to say something. Listening to the needs of the person and respecting their time and silences is a way of showing understanding and affection.

“You can be a victim of cancer, or a survivor of cancer. It’s a mindset.”

Dave Pelzer

Coping styles

Sometimes, it is not easy to understand the way our loved ones react to his disease. It is even difficult to understand our own actions when faced with such painful and complex moments. The control of many situations escapes us, we do not know what to do, we get frustrated and try to find out what the person thinks or feels. After all, we do not want them to suffer. We do not want to suffer.

How the patient handles the disease has to do with the coping style that person has. These styles are determined by the patient’s thought patterns and personality patterns. In general, there are 5 coping styles:


These people view the disease as a challenge. “I have to manage to maintain my life as I have until now. I have to decide what I can do.” Even the diagnosis itself becomes a challenge. They consider the control they can exercise over the situation and develop an optimistic forecast. They try to get a lot of information. Practical and useful information, not excessive information. They are looking for what will help them take an active role in the process.

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People with this style deny the negative things the disease can cause them. “It’s not that bad, everything will remain the same. There’s nothing to worry about.” They try to minimize how they perceive the threat, reducing its importance. They don’t focus on their capacity for control, like those with the fighting coping style. They assume a manageable prognosis and underestimate the impact of the disease. People with this coping style may turn to substance abuse as an escape route.


Those with this coping style adopt an attitude of passive acceptance. “Everything is in the hands of the doctors.” “God has decided my destiny.” They become resigned. They see the threat as not too serious and place control outside of themselves (with doctors, God, etc.). They are patients who do not use active strategies to cope and tend to have problems adapting.


The patient feels overwhelmed. “There is nothing I can do, just wait to die.” They see the diagnosis as a very serious threat, a great loss. Thus, they feel they have no control over their situation. They do not even believe in the control of third parties such as doctors. The patient with this style may abandon good hygiene, food, etc. Mood disorders are also very common in this group.


This group experiences a strong reaction of worry and anxiety. “I have to be on the lookout for any symptom, I have to learn everything I can.” The patient perceives a great threat and constantly doubts their control over the situation. Likewise, they are very uncertain of the future. As a result, there is a constant need for reassuring information. This style may be accompanied by anxiety and somatoform disorders.

“Cancer is a word, not a sentence.”

-John Diamond

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Quality of life

There are three basic criteria to understanding quality of life. First, it is completely subjective. Each person is unique and values their quality of life based on their experiences, aspirations, and individual preferences. It is also multidimensional. That is, we must take into account the broad repercussions of the disease and its treatment. Finally, it is temporary. Quality of life depends on the present. It changes with the situation.

Quality of life has always been closely linked to the disease. Patients want to live, not survive. This implies taking into account the level of activity and autonomy that the patient has. Likewise, it is essential to consider the physical affectation of the illness and the psychological state (anxiety, depression, self-esteem, etc.).

We cannot forget the social dimension. It is very important to feel satisfied with social relationships and have a support network. Of equal importance is spiritual life. Finally, material resources such as money and medical care are important.

In short, it is essential to take into account the needs of the person. Respecting and helping in making decisions based on their evaluations and desires will help them manage difficulties and overcoming adversities. The issue is not simply adding years to life, it’s about adding life to the years.


This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.