How to Discuss a Terminal Brain Tumor Diagnosis During the Holidays

Advice to show support and love while respecting a person's wishes

How to Discuss a Terminal Brain Tumor Diagnosis During the Holidays

Hearing that a loved one has a terminal brain tumor is difficult at any time of the year, but even more so during the holiday season. What do you say or do around a person who has recently been diagnosed?

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While there’s no perfect way to discuss such a diagnosis, neuropsychologist Michael Parsons, PhD, says the safest approach is to follow the lead of the person diagnosed.

“In these conversations, the family member has some feelings (like anxiety or grief) and the person affected by cancer has their own set of feelings. It’s OK to express your own feelings or concerns, but it’s even more important to respect the wishes of the person dealing with cancer,” he says.

He offers these tips to help guide anyone trying to show love and support to someone who is dealing with brain cancer:

Let your loved one decide whether to discuss it

Allow the newly diagnosed person to decide how and when to address it, since different people will have different ways of handling things.

“Some people might prefer not to talk about the problem, and instead focus on their time with their families and the good times they’ve had, and for some period of time, forget about the fact they have a brain tumor,” Dr. Parsons says.

“Others may be very willing to be open about it, and may see the holidays as a good time to discuss their experiences.”

Ask questions if your loved one is open to them

If the person with the brain tumor is willing to engage in conversation, go ahead and ask whatever questions you have as a concerned friend or family member, Dr. Parsons says.

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If you do this, approach your loved one in a very open, caring way, and ask the questions you’re wondering about.

For example, ask: How are you feeling? Have you been having any pain? How has this changed the way you view your life? What do you expect for the future? Is there anything I can do to help you?

“It’s easiest when you can be direct about your questions, and then listen to the person,” says Dr. Parsons.

“If they don’t want to talk about certain things, they’ll usually tell you. If they don’t want to talk about it at all, and they make that clear to you, then leave it alone.”

For some family members, it may be more productive to seek out support groups, which provide an avenue for sharing feelings that does not necessarily involve the patient.

Offer to help

Often, patients with brain tumors will have obvious signs of the illness, such as a scar from brain surgery. They may have lost their hair from going through chemotherapy or radiation. Perhaps they have gained weight from taking steroid medications used to treat the brain swelling that accompanies brain tumors.

These physical changes in appearance can create awkward situations, because the year before, the person was perfectly healthy. Now, he may need a hand moving from room to room or filling a plate of food, for example.

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Dr. Parsons encourages a direct approach with this situation, too.

“Offer to help, and then see how the person who is affected responds,” he says. “Some people appreciate a little help in a quiet, comforting way; others may want to do it themselves as a mark of independence, a process of rehabilitation or fighting the illness.”

Don’t wait too long to talk

If you are not comfortable talking to your family member about brain cancer during the holidays, it is perfectly fine to wait until later to share your feelings.

However, he says that people with brain cancer or other brain disorders (like ALS for example) can sometimes develop dementia. This means cognitive deterioration could prevent them from having the conversation some time before their death from the illness, so it’s better not to wait too long.

“It’s not an easy time,” Dr. Parsons concludes. “But the holidays can be a good time for such discussions. They can provide an opportunity to make memories for family members, as well as an opportunity for people with brain cancer to share their feelings.”

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