When Your Loved One Has Lung Cancer

Where do you begin when your loved one has lung cancer? How can you provide the best support while coping with your own fears and grief?

It would be great if we all had an experienced mentor who had walked the journey we must walk when our loved one is diagnosed. Yet, in a way we do, and it comes from listening to those who have "been there" as a family member or friend.

Let's share some thoughts and insights from those who have taken the journey as a loved one of someone with lung cancer before us and talk about the tips they longed to pass along.


When Your Loved One Has Lung Cancer

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The first clarification to make when talking about when your loved one who has lung cancer, is that everyone is different.

And just as every person with cancer—even people with the same type and stage of cancer—is different, what works and doesn't work for you as a caregiver may differ from what may help someone else in your position. At the same time, some of what we share here may resonate with you. Pick what you feel will be helpful and discard what isn't. 

Caring for a loved one with cancer is one of the most honorable roles you may play in life. There are few things people do over the course of a lifetime that are more important. That said, the old adages, "be true to yourself" and "you have to take care of yourself first" were never as close to the truth. Try not to feel guilty when you need to put yourself first, and make sure to include your own needs (even if silent) in perspective.


Brace Yourself and Get Ready for a Marathon

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Lung cancer is a marathon, not a sprint. Just as you would pace yourself if you ran a marathon, pace yourself in the journey you are undertaking as a cancer caregiver.

Though there are certainly emergencies, most decisions don’t have to be made immediately. When your loved one is first diagnosed it can feel surreal to both of you. And even though there are typical stages people go through in accepting a diagnosis of cancer, every step from denial to anger to acceptance can take place in those first days.

Instead of running yourself dry, consider your loved one's support system as well as your own friends and loved ones. This is a good time to learn to delegate. Take a moment to consider the special talents and gifts of your friends and family. In what ways could each of them help you when challenges arise?

Some people have found it helpful to buy a caregiving journal right away after diagnosis. On a fresh page try to write down any and all friends, family members, acquaintances, and groups you are involved with such as church and more. When you are feeling overwhelmed, need to be two places at the same time, or simply need a moment to take care of yourself, you will have a list of people you can contact for backup and support. It's amazing how much easier it is to navigate these conflicts when your loved one's names are right in front of you.


Learn About Your Loved One's Cancer

Vial and needle with text about lung cancer

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Take time to learn about your loved one's cancer. Studies suggest that people who are their own advocates and educate themselves have better outcomes than those who do not. How can you advocate for your loved one?

Ask questions. Accompany your loved one to oncology visits and take notes. Bring a list of questions.

It is possible to find credible medical information online, but it's important to consider the sites. Is the information written or reviewed by a board-certified physician? When was the information last updated? Are sources cited so that you can investigate what you learn in greater depth? Try to stick with well-respected health information sites.

Searching for medical information for your loved one can be somewhat tricky and it's important to watch for the right balance. Taking the time to research her cancer is an expression that you care, but at the same time, those with cancer are sometimes irritated at the idea of being parentified. Cancer does enough to reduce dignity without feeling a person needs to be babied too much. Strive for that balance but realize that a constant balancing act and changes from day to day.


Help to Minimize the Stigma

Cropped Image Of Person Smoking Cigarette
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If your loved one has been coping with lung cancer for some time, we don’t need to point out the stigma of lung cancer. In contrast to the words of caring and support most people hear when they share their diagnosis, the first words spoken to someone with lung cancer are often: "How long did you smoke?" This happens regardless of whether or not someone has smoked, and does not consider that we all have habits that may contribute to cancer, whether dietary, a sedentary lifestyle, or too much stress.

The first step is to avoid building on this stigma in the first place. Questions such as “don’t you wish you had quit smoking earlier?” have no place in this setting. You can be sure that most people with cancer have already inflicted enough of this second-guessing on themselves. Yet beyond watching your own words, you are in an ideal role as an advocate for your loved one to remind them of their worth and play interference.

"Defend" your loved one and take charge when needed. When people ask your loved one about her smoking status it may be a good time to step in, answer for your loved one, and provide some education. "Anyone with lungs can get lung cancer." Perhaps this is the time to let another know that there are more non-smoking women who die from lung cancer each year than who die from breast cancer. Perhaps it is even time to provide education on a broader point: "Nobody deserves cancer. Everyone with lung cancer deserves love, compassion, and the best medical care possible."


Provide Unconditional Support

Close up of two people holding hands

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At first, this may sound easy—“provide unconditional support”—but it will likely be the hardest thing you have ever done.

Not only is cancer a marathon, but those living with lung cancer are coping with fears and uncertainty, anger and pain. Cancer emotions can run strong, and deep, and change many times even within a single day. There may be days where you would rather catch an international flight anywhere than be there for your loved one.

As noted earlier, providing unconditional support means leaving an evaluation of the causes of lung cancer to the researchers and epidemiologists. Your role is to help your loved one feel empowered and receive the best treatment possible no matter what she may have done in the past to raise the likelihood of developing cancer.

Life changes when someone receives the dreaded "C" diagnosis.

Another important concept here is that your loved one will need to express her negative emotions. Far too often, people are told that they need to keep a positive attitude to survive cancer. This is simply not true. There are no studies that demonstrate a positive attitude has anything to do with survival. In contrast, holding negative emotions inside and trying to smile and be courageous 24/7 can be damaging. Let your loved one vent.


Consider Special Situations Such as Holidays Ahead of Time

Sad woman sitting on a couch with a Christmas tree in the background

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The holidays are often stressful even for people without cancer. Adding cancer to the equation can be the last straw on the camel's back unless you plan a bit ahead of time. On the other hand, with careful forethought, this can be an extra special time to enjoy each other.

Prioritizing and simplifying your usual holiday schedule is a great step in reducing the stress of the season. Limit the number of activities, and make sure to leave flexibility in your plans to allow for the inevitable problems that can arise given a diagnosis of cancer.

Take time to think about what the season means to you. Some cancer caregivers have found healing in making the season a time of forgiveness for past conflicts. You may not be able to follow tradition as you have in the past, but this isn't always bad. Consider ways in which you can create new memories—ones that will carry you through the rough winter months that can follow the holidays.


Care for Yourself

Woman reading a book in the bathtub

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 We know many of you will absolutely cringe when we say, "Take care of yourself." And we can already hear the rebuttal. "Who has time for themselves when a loved one has cancer?" "There are only 24 hours in a day." We know. We've been there, and know that sometimes we have to put our own wants and needs on the back burner.

There are some things you can do to honor yourself that don't take hours of your time. It may seem forced, but take a moment and list a few activities that you would find healing and rejuvenating for you alone. Is it 10 minutes to soak in a tub with candles? When you are feeling overwhelmed, or worse, guilty for taking time for yourself, consider what you would want your loved one to do if the tables were turned.


Recognize and Own Your Grief

Sad woman sitting at the dining room table

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Just as your loved one is grieving her diagnosis, you will be facing grief as well. If your loved one has a poor prognosis, those feelings of grief may be readily apparent, but grieving occurs for many other reasons as well.

You may be grieving your loss of time—time that you ordinarily would have spent doing some other activity. You may be grieving for the losses your loved one is experiencing. You may be grieving the time that your children may not have with a parent due to the diagnosis. You may be grieving the loss of financial security that cancer presents.

Whatever your grief, take the time to recognize your feelings. Sometimes people have to work through their own grief before helping a loved one. With cancer there is often also anticipatory grief — the feelings of sadness and loss we feel even before a loss occurs.


Find Outside Support

Group of friends in a cafe

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Just as your loved one needs support from you, it's important that you receive support from your own network of friends.

Even though you may have the most supportive friends imaginable, there is something special about talking with someone who is facing the same challenges. Are there any caregiver support groups in your community?

Online support groups and communities have a few advantages for caregivers of people with lung cancer. Unlike breast cancer support groups, those specifically designed for family members of people with lung cancer in your community may be hard to come by. Going online gives you access to people who may live thousands of miles away, yet have an understanding of exactly what you are feeling. Another advantage is that you don't need to leave home to join these communities and other members are available 24/7. Some of these include:


Hang on to Hope

Boardwalk in a field with the sun setting in the distance

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There are many reasons to hang on to hope as your loved one copes with lung cancer.

  • Treatments are improving.
  • There are long-term survivors—even of stage 4 lung cancer.
  • There is support.
  • You are not alone.

Are you struggling in your efforts to kindle hope in your loved one? 


Next Steps in Your Caregiver Journey

Woman pointing to something in the distance as she stands next to a man in a wheelchair.

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Though everyone faces a different journey, there are similarities along the way. One of our favorite resources on being a caregiver for a loved one with lung cancer wasn't written by a doctor. It wasn't penned by a social worker or the director of a non-profit. Instead, it was published by someone who knows the landscape of caregiving in more depth and with greater intimacy. Cancer Journey: A Caregiver's View From the Passenger Seat by Cynthia Siegfried is the story of her journey as she supports her husband who has lung cancer through the ups and downs and corkscrews of life.

Perhaps you want to write out your own journey. Journaling your cancer caregiver journey can be therapeutic while leaving a legacy for your family.

Though anyone who has cared for a loved one with lung cancer will tell you that the road is difficult and challenging, it is one of the greatest things you can do as a human being to share your love. Maybe you will even be inspired to become an advocate for others facing lung cancer, but first, learn when to say no to take care of yourself. You are worth it!

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