A Health Crisis and Family Dynamics

health crisis

When people ask me about my family I usually answer, “I come from a dysfunctional Irish Catholic family.” That usually gets a good laugh—especially from the Irish Catholic ones.

But the truth is that all families have dynamics. Also known as subtleties. Undercurrents. Or the way your family is structured. How it works. As we grow up and look back, we understand a little better how we fit in to that dynamic. And we might make changes in our lives or in our parenting to acknowledge or change the dynamics in which we grew up. For example, children who grew up with parents who were not very expressive about their feelings often become parents who make sure that they tell their children how much they love them.

The bottom line, though, is if the dynamic “works” for you, and doesn’t hurt you or anyone else, then have at it! What works for one does not work for all!

Though I will admit that over the years, one of the most intriguing aspects of dealing with patients who have been diagnosed with a life threatening illness like cancer is understanding how they interact with their family and vice versa.

A health crisis like cancer brings with it a lot of feelings. Fear. Anxiety. Anger. Depression. You can’t help but feel the gamut of emotions. And it’s perfectly OK. Better out than in, I like to say. But if you are trying to express those emotions to your ‘we don’t talk about those things’ family, don’t be surprised if everyone looks a little uncomfortable.

When it comes to family dynamics with cancer, let me tell you what I tell patients for whom we are advocating. Cancer heightens family dynamics, it doesn’t fix them nor does it minimize them. So don’t be surprised if your brother, who’s always been the ‘comedian,’ is still ‘playing’ the comedian with tougher material with which to work. If your sister or mother has always buried her head in the sand when something ‘bad’ happens, chances are good she’s going to do that same behavior now that you’re dealing with cancer. You might want to think twice before you ask her to go with you to the oncologist’s office to discuss your treatment plan or review your test results.

Think of it this way, your partner/spouse, your parents and your siblings, even your children, are by-products of their family and the dynamics that occurred in that unit. They may not be capable of offering you what you need. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you or want to help. It just means they are not able to be someone they’re not. And a crucial time like dealing with a cancer diagnosis may not be the time to tackle this head on.

Instead, focus on the friends, family members twice removed, co-workers who CAN offer you what you need. Support can come from a variety of different and unique sources. Pursue those.

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About Betty Long, RN

As a registered nurse working in greater Philadelphia-area hospitals over the past 27 years, Betty Long’s experiences as a nurse and manager proved to her that maneuvering through today’s healthcare system can be daunting, especially when you don’t have someone to help you navigate the system. Care decisions, insurance decisions and coordination of treatment services can overwhelm even the savviest consumer. Those experiences, and other more personal experiences, led Long to launch Guardian Nurses Healthcare Advocates in October 2003. Guardian Nurses provides advocacy services for clients, both private and corporate, all over the United States. The driving mission for its nurse advocates is simple: to act as representatives and advocate for their patients. And since nurse advocates work independently of hospitals, doctors, insurance companies and government agencies, they can be a strong voice for patients in all areas of the healthcare system. Nurse advocates understand healthcare issues from the viewpoint of caring for the patient and of the medical professionals trying to provide care. Nationally, Long’s advocacy work has been featured on The Dr Oz Show and National Public Radio’s Marketplace and Marketplace Money shows and various print publications. www.GuardianNurses.com

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