King Charles’ cancer diagnosis means the royal family has joined the approximately 3 million families in the UK affected by the disease. His family has already gathered around in support. William, Prince of Wales, has taken over some public duties for his father. And younger son Harry, who lives in California, flew to the UK to visit after the diagnosis was announced.
If you, like William and Harry, are navigating a parent’s diagnosis, you are not alone. Around 400,000 people are diagnosed each year. This can be a frightening and difficult time for families, and can change family dynamics.
Adult children may find themselves offering emotional and practical support for a parent in a way that has not been required before, through managing medications and symptoms, travel to medical appointments, help with meal preparation and financial support.
It can be rewarding to support a loved one and an important way to actively work together, but it can also be stressful. Studies have found that family caregivers are generally more anxious and more likely to hide their emotional distress when compared with their family member with cancer.
Being a supportive family, even in conflict
Family support can act as a “social cure” against the stress of a life-changing illness. The social cure theory proposes that being a part of a social group (or multiple groups) has benefits for our health and wellbeing. Social groups, particularly those with whom we strongly identify, like families, provide support and help us to combat times of stress.
The key psychological component here is that people feel they belong to and identify with their groups. While undergoing cancer treatment, someone may not be able to participate in their usual social groups – through work or hobbies – as much as they used to. These groups may then become incompatible with a person’s new identity as a cancer survivor.
Of course, not all families work together harmoniously, and may be in conflict through divorce, separation or estrangement. Social psychologists have found that “incompatible” social groups can lead to poorer mental health.
Separated families can still come together and be a helpful social group, but they must offer the kind of support that their loved one needs. To figure this out, it is important to think about the person’s identity within the family.
For example, a father may view his identity as an advisor, but a cancer diagnosis requires him to be cared for and to seek advice. He may feel a sense of loss for his typical family role, a loss of meaning and of control.
However, if his family communicates openly about the difficulties they are all facing, the father may be able to continue to advise his family, in addition to receiving their advice. This can help to maintain his sense of identity as an advisor within his family, while navigating a new status as a cancer survivor.
Communication and support networks
Cancer throws patients and their loved ones into a complex health system, often for the first time, where medical decisions and terminology become important every day. Understanding the “language of cancer” can help families feel more in control after a diagnosis.
Equally important is communication within a family. Talking about the cancer, rather than treating it as a taboo topic, can improve mental health for both patients and their families. It may also be an opportunity to empower patients and their loved ones to seek outside support, such as counselling.
Families spread across geographical distances (like the royal family) can offer emotional support through regular phone calls or online tools. During the pandemic, I developed and trialled an app to help older adults combat loneliness. The app allowed them to see a digital map of their social groups, including family members.
Your family member with cancer may feel like a burden. This is a common fear in older adulthood generally. But reminding them of how many people are in their lives – and how many people they support – can combat this feeling.
Social media is one way to get more involved in these reciprocal support networks. In my work, families affected by cancer have reported using online communities to better understand what their family is going through. Private social media groups dedicated to illness can be helpful spaces to meet other patients and families, share experiences and normalise cancer.
Cancer communities exist on Instagram, on YouTube and X/Twitter and through registered cancer charities like Macmillan Cancer Support. These online resources all provide a way to build a network following a cancer diagnosis.
Just as group identification is important within families, having more groups to connect to can act as a buffer during stressful times and help you all cope with your new reality.