False Positive: Providing Emotional Support to a Loved One with Cancer

Jan 25, 2023 | Blog Articles

At a time when someone with cancer needs support and care, well-intentioned people sometimes dismiss concerns about their fears and emotions, or fear of dying, mostly due to their own fears.

Margie Braunstein, Senior Facilitator and Mental Health Practitioner at Quest for Life, writes about some of her experiences and simple and practical ways you can provide emotional support.

“As a group facilitator for people living with cancer, I often hear people talking about how they’ve been told, ‘you must stay positive’. Everyone from their oncologist to their friends and family want them to ‘stay positive’.

A participant once told me that her mother responded to her wanting to talk about her fear of dying by saying, ‘Now, now… we don’t want to hear any of that negative talk, dear.’ She then left the room to make a cup of tea. Many of this participant’s friends were reacting in similar ways.

To be fair, her mother was probably terrified of possibly losing her daughter and may have learned to cope with life’s difficult emotions by avoiding unpleasant subjects. Or she may hold a common, but incorrect belief, that feeling ‘negative’ makes things worse. Some people even think that if you talk about death, you might bring it on! Nothing could be further from the truth.

Think for a moment about how this comment impacted her daughter. She was possibly feeling vulnerable, frightened, sad and grieving for the potential loss of her health and life, and then, experienced friends and loved ones staying behind emotionally closed doors – just at a time when she needed to be held and listened to the most.

At a time when someone needs support and care, well-intentioned people sometimes dismiss their concerns, mostly due to their own fears. Some people naturally feel scared about causing their own death if they can’t maintain this desired state of positivity. Such unnecessary pressure!

In the book Remarkable Recovery, one doctor says:

Cancer patients who keep up a false front in the name of a positive attitude are doing themselves a disservice. They are cutting themselves off from emotions like fear, anger and sadness, that are necessary to the healing process.

There is a distinct difference between holding a vision for a positive outcome of health, peace, and life and trying to stay constantly ‘positive’ while on the path of healing. Who says that crying or yelling out loud to your cancer is negative? Releasing these tensions might be the best thing for us!

Feelings are experienced in our bodies

Think about someone you love. Where is the bodily feeling when you conjure an image of that person or pet? Think of a situation that causes you to feel fear. Where is the bodily feeling when you conjure up that image?

Unexpressed feelings become tension which we hold in our bodies

We learn at a young age which feelings are safe to express and which ones are not. When we’re cut off from these feelings, a part of us becomes unavailable and locked away. ‘Health’ means to ‘become whole,’ but years of holding back these feelings can deplete our resources and contribute to unhealthy mental and physical health.

Appropriate expression of anger or any other feeling, can be hugely liberating. Personally, I like to have a good old growl in the car when no-one is listening, or a loving hug (without words) when I feel frightened or sad.

There are many triggers and causes for our bodies to move from good health to disease. I believe that emotional congruence, or ‘being true to ourselves,’ plays a part in how we heal physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. If we paper over our feelings, then we may be preventing the full flowering of our potential.

Disease can be a catalyst for people to explore long-buried tension and hurt

This can be challenging, which is why it is sometimes best done in the company of a caring professional. It can also be liberating and lead to freedom, lightness and deep inner peace.

I encourage you to be true to yourself and to explore all the options on your path of healing, including emotional wellbeing and expression.

If you have a loved one living with a life-threatening or chronic illness, see if you can offer them the gift of your 100% listening. Put your own needs aside to hear about their suffering, so that they might feel supported as they search for their own way to health and peace. Don’t tell them what to eat, what to do, or to ‘stay positive’!

Be there. Listen. Learn.”


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How Quest for Life can help

If you are living with a cancer diagnosis or chronic illness, Quest for Life’s Quest for Life Residential Program provides a recipe for peace and healing, showing you ways you can create an ideal physiology to regain or retain your health, no matter your circumstance or challenge.

If you’re interested in learning more or attending the program, please submit an enquiry form from the Quest for Life page or call 1300 941 488.