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Cancer: The Unwelcome Guest

Empowering Your Relationships in the Battle Against Cancer

by Karen Tripp, MS

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Imagine an unwelcome guest showing up in your living room. Beyond being grotesque, foul smelling, and abusive, the guest is dangerous. The unspoken decision is made not to upset him, so conversation among family members is stilted and planned activities grind to a halt, all because of the fear of how the guest will react. The entire household invests itself in eliminating the unwelcome visitor. This unwelcome guest is cancer.

Cancer comes uninvited into our relationships, leaving frustration, exhaustion, and fear. No relationship is immune. Whether drawing closer to the survivor or subtly pulling away, everyone reacts. But please understand this: cancer’s unwelcome entrance does not give it the right to dominate relationships. You have the power to choose the role cancer will play in your life.

Say the C Word
“For weeks after my diagnosis, I couldn’t say the word ‘cancer,’” says Lisa Clayton, lymphoma survivor. It’s easy to believe that by avoiding a topic, it will become less important. Ironically, the opposite is true. Try having a conversation without saying the word “and.” It’s possible, but only by consistently thinking about the word. If this is true for an innocuous word like “and,” imagine the effort needed to not talk about cancer.

If the research facilities and hospitals are the war rooms in the battle against cancer, then the living rooms of cancer survivors are the trenches.

Author of Article photo

Karen Tripp

Typically, avoiding the topic of cancer is not a decision; it’s a response. Yet the unspoken topic creates isolation at a time when survivors and caregivers need connectedness and unity. Choose to eliminate the toxicity of not speaking about cancer by finding ways to share its impact:

  • Check the impact on your relationship.
    “How are you handling my cancer?” “You seem moody. Are you thinking a lot about your cancer?”
  • Make room for humor.
    It’s true; humor is great medicine.
  • Declare a cancer vacation day.
    Take a day where you don’t talk about cancer or do any cancer-related activities.
  • Find your core support group.
    To whom can you give an honest answer to the question “How are you doing?”

Cope with Stress Openly and Honestly
If the research facilities and hospitals are the war rooms in the battle against cancer, then the living rooms of cancer survivors are the trenches. Families devise battle strategies to lower a survivor’s stress and improve their immune systems. Relationships that were thriving before a diagnosis can become strained from monitoring conversations to avoid stress. Some attempts to decrease stress backfire and actually increase stress. Be focused. Design your own method of coping with stress that builds confidence and engages everyone involved:

  • Ask what activities are stressful.
    Stress is often based on perceptions. One man finds paying bills a stress; another finds it a relief.
  • Life is stressful.
    Reducing stress is a realistic goal; eliminating stress is not.
  • Stress is mostly shared nonverbally.
    Withholding stressful information may create more stress from the impact of the secrecy.
  • Reducing caregivers’ stress is also important.
    When friends ask, “Is there anything I can do?” answer “Yes!”
  • Don’t lie.
    Survivors lying about symptoms and caregivers lying about fatigue can create frustration by not acknowledging the obvious.

Discover New Ways to Care for One Another
One survivor has always cared for his family by working hard but is suddenly not able to work. His caregiver now faces the role of financially supporting the home. Another survivor who spent her life caring for others is now being taken care of by those same people. Both survivors and caregivers need to find new ways to care for others. Remember this: survivors can still give. Symptoms and fatigue may limit physical abilities, but not emotional gifts. Both caregivers and survivors need to be needed, thanked, and included. The list of caring activities below applies to both survivors and caregivers:

  • There’s nothing as sweet as appreciation.
    Say “thank you” frequently, specifically, and passionately.
  • Increase touch instead of decreasing it.
    Hold your father’s hand. Brush your mom’s hair. Rub your wife’s feet. Cuddle a child.
  • Plan a surprise.
    Place notes in the book your loved one is reading, draw smiley faces on the fogged bathroom mirror, put fun stickers on your slippers.

Cancer is unwelcome in your marriage, your family, and your home. But by sharing its impact, cancer’s power to injure your relationships is debilitated. In the battle against cancer, don’t forget the power of words.

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Karen Tripp is a marriage and family therapist and the author of God is Bigger Than Your Cancer. For excerpts and reviews, go to

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2009.