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Tips For Connecting With A Loved One With A Terminal Cancer Diagnosis

Tips For Connecting With A Loved One With A Terminal Cancer Diagnosis



Cyndi Zaweski

Telling your loved ones about your cancer diagnosis is almost as hard as hearing it yourself for the first time. The heartbreak was visible in my father’s eyes despite the half-hearted smile when he told our family during a small, socially-distanced gathering in June 2020.

It wasn’t the first time we heard those words from him. He had lung cancer before—the curable kind with the help of life-saving surgery. This time was different.

By the time he found out, following months of delayed routine screenings typical for lung cancer survivors because of COVID-19, the cancer had already taken hold of his brain, liver, and kidneys.

It was a question of when. Eight weeks to eight months was the doctor's best guess on how long had left to live.

When the initial news sank in, and a decision was made that he’d fight back with Chemo, the ultimate course of action was said aloud: quality over quantity. The terminal diagnosis would take him, but not before he fully lived out his last days.

Below are the best ways we found to connect with a loved one facing a terminal cancer diagnosis.

1. Ask them how they want to spend time together—and then do that thing!

My dad didn’t want to be treated like a sick person. Our initial attempts to comfort him sometimes had the opposite effect. Don't make assumptions about what they want or need from you. Ask!

This is especially important if your loved one is in the early stages of their illness—they may not even realize what kind of support they need yet because they're still getting used to thinking about the reality of their situation. Be sensitive to their needs and ask questions until you understand what kind of help they need from you right now.

There is no time like the present when facing a terminal illness. When he wanted ice cream, we dug in our spoons. When he wanted to take the dog to the park, we handed over the leash. When he wanted to ensure we were up on our World War I facts, we flipped on the History Channel (again and again).

In the beginning, there wasn’t much talk about dying. But being there for him on his terms eventually helped him open up, leading to some of the best long talks we’ve ever shared.

2. Warm up to harder conversations by starting happy memories.

It's never easy to talk about life and death with someone you love. But it's important to start the conversation so that you give them time to process what's happening and also forge a deeper connection in the time you have left together.

One way to do this is by starting with happy memories—like looking at old photographs together or reminiscing about a vacation you took together when they were younger.

Photos are a wonderful way to gain a new perspective on loved ones. In addition to insights into their younger years, photos can provide opportunities for interesting conversations and bonding experiences between different generations. Seeing photos of my dad as a boy was a gift that allowed me to learn more about him and what made him tick. I learned more about our similarities and a lot about myself along the way.

These conversations take some of the edge off of talking about serious issues like their diagnosis, their hopes and dreams for those they leave behind, and their legacy. It also gives both of you an opportunity to learn more about each other in a fun way.

3. Get creative, and bring in the joy.

The single worst thing about chemo, according to my father, was losing his hair. He was a man who took care of his appearance. The uncontrollable weight loss turned him frail, but it was nothing compared to the psychological loss of pulling out tufts of dark, thick hair.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer, we wanted to support him in any way we could. But the reality was that our options were limited because of the pandemic.

We felt like there was nothing we could do to support him, but two-day shipping from Amazon prime made the smile return to his face. My brothers and I got into the habit of shipping him hats when visiting him in person was too dangerous — partly because of his compromised immune system.

The more outlandish, the better was our motto. Halloween costume headgear, plush animal caps, wide-brimmed sun hats. He happily modeled each design via FaceTime after every shipment. It was a moment of pure joy and fun, amidst the sad certainty.

My dad beat the odds. He stuck with his commitment to living out a life of quality for two and a half years after he was told he had two months left to live.

The treatment that destroyed his cancer ultimately destroyed his body. And in the end, even though the cancer was shrinking, it wasn’t enough to save his life. But, those two and half years of living fully with cancer were enough to share his life and legacy and allow his family to support him while he did cancer.

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