Cancer Journey

Discussing Cancer Treatment Over the Holidays

5 Strategies for Having a Productive Conversation About Cancer Treatment

By Katie Ressler

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Gatherings with family or friends during the holidays may offer an opportunity to reconnect while taking a break from the frenzied pace of life. For people with cancer, these gatherings may bring on mixed emotions: joy in spending time with loved ones and anxiety surrounding difficult conversations about treatment. If you are facing cancer, talking about your plan may bring peace to the whole family. Here are five tips to get the most from your meetings with family and friends at any time of the year, including this holiday season.

1. Make a plan to have an open conversation and for you, the patient, to take the lead

“Often fear or discomfort is a barrier to discussing cancer treatment options openly. It’s scary to talk about options and the realities of the situation.  Sometimes people inaccurately believe that frank discussion about options will weaken hopefulness or foster negativity,” says Holly Sullivan, LCSW, Mind-Body Therapist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) at Western Regional Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

Preparing yourself to have a productive conversation can help you overcome fears and discomfort about what may happen. Make a list of topics you want to cover with your family and set the agenda when your family is ready to meet.

Sullivan suggests covering treatment options, including where to treat and when, along with the pros and cons of each option. She advises that discussing practical matters, such as who might step up in helping with issues like household chores or childcare, can provide family members, friends and other caregivers with a way to help you.

2. Make sure you have a voice

When a family member faces a serious medical issue, loved ones can disagree on aspects of care: where to have treatment, what type of treatment to seek, how aggressive to be in fighting the disease, when to start or end treatment and when to seek hospice care.

Sometimes, it can be difficult for family members and caregivers to consider how a patient feels due to their own fears, especially when their family member has advanced stage cancer diagnosis. “Family members often wants their loved one to continue fighting, but he or she may feel voiceless, tired and may not want to continue,” says Angelishea Ferrell, LMSW, social worker at CTCA® at Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Atlanta, Georgia. “It’s most important for family and friends to make conversations about the needs of the person facing cancer and not their own desires. When family and friends  put their needs first, it may end negatively with the family versus the patient.”

3. Communicate openly and honestly

Whether you’re the patient, a spouse or family member or friend, it’s critical to be true to your feelings. “Be open and honest while balancing this with compassion and empathy for each other. Remember that communicating is not just about talking, but about listening,” says Sullivan. “Even if you disagree, try to hear the other person and remember that treatment decisions are ultimately in the hands of the patient. Be respectful of decisions and mindful that these decisions aren’t easy to make.”

4. Take a break

Sometimes tensions rise when you’re discussing cancer treatment. When this happens, suggest to your family that you take a break and determine when to resume the conversation. “I suggest deciding on a code word ahead of time. If tensions get too high, use the code word to signify needing a short break to diffuse the situation.  Decide when to resume conversation, even if it’s the next day. Breaks can often help with gaining clarity,” says Sullivan.

5. Nominate a Spokesperson

Even with preparation, there will be new questions, some of which you may not be able to answer. Consider nominating a spokesperson to help you document the questions, find answers and share with the rest of the family and your friends so you’re not constantly relaying information. Add the spokesperson as a contact in your medical chart to improve communication between family members, friends and the medical team.

“I recently helped a patient who had many family members involved in decisions about care. I discussed with the family how a spokesperson could benefit the patient,” recalls Ferrell. “Once the family decided on a spokesperson, the spokesperson was able to help communicate the main goal for the patient. This helped our team share how our goal for treatment aligned with the patient’s goals.”

As you plan for upcoming holiday gatherings try to embrace the time you choose to spend with your caregivers whether they be family or friends. These strategies are intended to help you communicate to your caregivers how they can best support you as you continue fighting cancer.