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Improve Your Bedside Manner When a Loved One Has Cancer

When your loved one is going through treatment, a variety of unknown, unscheduled, and unexpected demands may arise. These situations will be taxing on both you and your loved one, and depending on the circumstances you find yourselves in, you may have to take on whole new roles.

Being an advocate

If your loved one receives bad news from the doctor, he may tune everything out. During such times, you can be an advocate for him by closely listening to everything the doctor is saying, asking questions to ensure you’re completely clear on the situation, and writing everything down for future reference. This will help prevent any miscommunications or misunderstandings.

You may also become an advocate for your loved one when she’s unable to function normally, such as may occur during a hospitalization or if she’s distraught.

At such times, if you notice that your loved one needs something but can’t ask for it or hasn’t gotten it, don’t hesitate to make the request and follow up on her behalf — for example, if the pain medication hasn’t been delivered despite being ordered an hour ago or lunch never arrived and she’s hungry.

Although being an advocate can be straightforward, if your loved one’s condition worsens and he becomes unable to make healthcare decisions, you may have to make them on his behalf, particularly if you’re the spouse.

During such times, you may be unclear about what your loved one would want, particularly if you haven’t had such discussions.

To avoid this situation, you and your loved one should establish advance directives. This includes two key documents: a living will, which outlines the desired level of medical care when the condition is terminal (such as use of CPR or ventilators), and a power of attorney for healthcare, which appoints the person who’ll act as the surrogate decision maker.

For more information on advance directives, visit the National Institute of Aging website. In many cases, your loved one’s cancer center, physician, social worker, or counselor can help with obtaining and completing these forms.

Being a nurse

There may be times when you’ll need to assist your loved one in a manner more consistent with the role of a nurse. This may occur when your loved one returns home from the hospital, such as after undergoing surgery, or at a later point in the cancer journey if he develops advanced disease and is no longer able to care for himself.

During such times, you may feel ill-equipped to perform such functions, particularly if you have limited medical knowledge or you’re physically unable to bear the weight of your loved one, such as you might need to do to assist with bathroom trips or simply to adjust her position in bed.

Regardless of the circumstances, if you don’t feel you can handle this level of care, don’t hesitate to discuss your concerns with your loved one’s healthcare team. It may be possible to have additional help (for example, a nurse’s aide) in the home to assist in providing some level of care, particularly if you’re facing a hospice situation.

During such times, you also shouldn’t hesitate to lean on close family and friends for support.

Being a sounding board

One of the most important functions you can serve is to be a sounding board for your loved one. It’s always fine to respond, particularly if your loved one is seeking your thoughts, but it’s the nonjudgmental and genuinely supportive listening that’s so critical to his well-being. Having an ear to hear concerns, hopes, and fears can be therapeutic.

In fact, several studies have shown that talk therapy can help prevent depression, which is common in people with cancer. And even if your loved one develops depression, you’re more likely to identify it if you’re actively listening to her. Because depression can have serious consequences, preventing it from developing and intervening early when it does can maintain your loved one’s quality of life and ensure better outcomes.

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