Overcoming Cancer: The Importance of a Strong Support Network

It’s probably one of the most frightening sentences any patient can hear from their physician: “You have cancer.” For many people, the discovery changes everything—daily routines, family roles, future plans. In the immediate aftermath of the diagnosis, and throughout the entire treatment period, the support of family and friends is critical, helping patients regain a sense of normalcy, maintain emotional stability, and improve their chances of ensuring a positive clinical outcome.

The Importance of Support Systems for Cancer Patients

The healthcare system is increasingly overburdened, and that is putting an incredible amount of stress on the family and friends of cancer patients. Indeed, recent changes in the medical industry have shifted the burden of care from the hospital to the home, or in some cases to ambulatory facilities.

No matter where patients receive their day-to-day care, however, they typically have a number of pressing needs. Specifically, caregivers must be prepared to:

  • Monitor the disease
  • Oversee treatment
  • Manage symptoms
  • Administer medication
  • Provide emotional support
  • Assist with personal care 1

Family and friends are not always equipped to carry out such a diverse set of duties, some of which require specialized skills and knowledge. Nevertheless, they should be prepared to partner with the patient’s doctor, surgeon, nurses, and other healthcare providers to maintain a solid system of support.

The Psychological and Emotional Toll of a Cancer Diagnosis

Unfortunately, providing physical and emotional support to cancer patients is often complicated by the emotional toll exacted by the disease. That’s because a cancer diagnosis is always troubling and often terrifying, not only for the patient, but also for close friends and family.

By some estimates, a full 20 to 30 percent of spouses or partners suffer mood disturbances or even psychological impairment in the wake of a diagnosis.Even those family members who don’t experience the clinical symptoms of emotional or psychological damage nonetheless encounter a tremendous amount of stress relating to the disease. Usually, the burden is threefold:

  • Fear of the disease itself
  • Worry over the emotional impact
  • Anxiety resulting from disrupted routines

Each form of distress contributes to the incredible strain that many family members suffer as a result of a cancer diagnosis.

Female doctor stands with elderly female patient

Overcoming the Fear of Cancer

When people realize they have cancer, they and their families are first and foremost concerned about the disease itself. Indeed, the vast majority of spouses say that their primary concern is that their partners will die as a result of the disease. 1

The first step to overcoming the fear is to fully understand the disease. By some estimates, cancer affects nearly 50 percent of all men and 30 percent of all women in the United States,2 appearing in many forms and affecting many of the body’s systems. Some of the most common types include

  • Lung cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Prostate cancer 4

Providing Adequate Support

The good news is that no form of cancer has to be a death sentence. Almost all forms of cancer are treatable—as long as the disease is caught in the early stages. That’s why an annual physical is the first and most critical component in any effective cancer prevention strategy. By spotting the disease quickly and identifying cancer cells before they have a chance to spread, the patient’s prognosis improves significantly.

Even when patients and their families keep a positive outlook about the patient’s health, however, cancer can wreak havoc on nerves and relationships. Indeed, many spouses and close family members worry about their ability to provide adequate emotional support to the suffering partner. 3 Since it often goes unexpressed and even unacknowledged, such concern can often lead to a great deal of anxiety and even depression. That, in turn, can reduce the caregiver’s effectiveness.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be so. By cooperating with the patient’s full medical team, which includes both specialists and family care physicians, friends and family can become part of the solution, helping their loved one on the road to a full recovery.

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  1. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. “Family Support in Advanced Cancer.”
  2. American Cancer Society, "After Diagnosis: A Guide for Patients and Families" 
  3. Cancer Network
  4. National Cancer Institute. “Common Cancer Types.”

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