“Communication is key” – a rule that people, being social creatures and tending to form strong and supportive relationships, often bring up. We recommend that you take an even more responsible approach when dealing with a serious disease in a close relationship, as open and quality communication is a source of comfort, strength, and hope for both sides. Try these five tips to help you strengthen your relationships during a difficult time and face the uncertainty of disease with greater resilience.
Have open conversations
Create a safe and compassionate environment for open dialogue, encouraging a discussion where both sides feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, concerns, and emotions (especially if the patient is very sensitive about the diagnosis or naturally tends to withdraw). In other words, try to incorporate regular deeper conversations into your daily routine as a priority of the utmost importance, at a pre-scheduled time and without undue postponements.
We also recommend that you prepare for dialogue responsibly, ready to actively listen and really hear out each other’s feelings. (For more on why this step is important and how to implement it, see the next section.) You’ll soon find that regularly checking in on each other’s well-being will become a habit that strengthens your relationship. Besides, you’ll have more opportunities to deal with pressing problems or a new fear that has suddenly arisen right here and now.
Practice active listening and empathy
Listening to the person you’re talking to and not just hearing what they have to say is not easy. Even studies show that when we communicate effectively, we only listen about 20-30% of the time, missing the opportunity to build a deeper connection and not giving the other person a chance to reveal what is left between the lines. However, when faced with a cancer diagnosis, efforts to learn how to be an active listener should be sincere – when there is a need to talk, both the patient and the loved one expect understanding.
What methods do experts recommend to practice active listening? First of all, of course, is focusing on the person you’re talking to and allowing them to talk without interrupting them. Body language or gestures (e.g., a smile or a nod), short verbal interjections (e.g., “I understand you”). There should be no fear of asking to repeat if you didn’t catch or understand something. Paraphrasing what you’ve heard, thus showing the other how you understood the situation, or asking additional questions to clarify.
This is not a complete list, but it is important to remember that communication is a two-way process. Therefore, both sides should try to understand each other’s perspectives with empathy. There should be no personal judgements or advice if the person does not ask for it.
Set forth expectations
Knowing each other’s expectations and individual needs will make the treatment and care process smoother. For example, if you have the disease, you are likely to receive support, such as physical help with everyday tasks or the basic empathetic listening mentioned above. Therefore, be clear about what would make you feel more comfortable, or what aspects of the current situation seem difficult to cope with. It’s likely that even the people closest to you may not have a clear understanding of your experiences for a while until you share them openly.
Meanwhile, a family member may have a need to map out their options. Having a disease and caring for someone with the disease are two completely different experiences, but the latter also poses its own challenges to physical and psychological well-being. If you feel it’s getting too hard, don’t judge yourself in order to share it with the ill person and other relatives.
An extraordinary diagnosis of a health condition sometimes brings unforeseen changes, which is why assessing expectations should be a dynamic process. Reassess and adjust them. Flexible and understanding cooperation makes it easier to adapt, avoid misunderstandings or serious conflicts, and allow relationships to flourish even in the face of adversity.
This is equally true for the patient and their immediate environment, so encourage each other to join support groups, attend therapy sessions or special counseling sessions, either individually or with the whole family.
Practising activities of this sort will not only help you learn how to develop critical communication skills even more effectively but also make you realize you are not alone on your journey. It’s easier to share your story with people with similar experiences, discover new coping strategies for dealing with stress and problems, hear valuable insights into the impact of the disease on your life, etc. Ultimately, feelings of isolation are reduced while emotional well-being increases.
See things as victorious moments, not meaningless trifles
In the face of serious disease, it’s necessary to consciously celebrate achievements. There are no insignificant things in this situation. The end of another phase of treatment, the realization of a personal goal, rest after another hard day are real victories, right? Taking the time to recognize these moments will inspire each other to feel stronger than yesterday and to look forward with more positivity.
Reinforce this approach by proactively creating moments of joy yourself. Laughter has incredible power when it comes to relieving stress, lifting your mood, and improving your overall well-being, so join together in an activity that gives you a sense of fulfillment and refreshment, and distracts you from depressing thoughts. From time together watching a movie or playing board games to sharing fun memories, bright plans for the future, or creative activities.
In the particularly complicated stages of the disease, it may seem like nothing else exists apart from it. There may be a growing lack of time for cozy conversations, and when you do sit down to chat, the subject will turn back to your worries. Or you’ll stop celebrating even major achievements, let alone the attempts to lift your spirits. Don’t give up! It is during this challenging period of your life that the strengthened relationship will become a legacy of unconditional love, deep understanding, and an unbreakable bond.