Coping with Cancer by Setting Boundaries

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

JUNE 30, 2020

Cancer Patient MeditatingAll relationships and situations have boundaries. Boundaries is a clinical term in psychology that describes the guidelines between people. Necessary in all relationships, boundaries ensure that both people involved are respectful and appropriate. Another way to think about this would be rules or limits.

Even if we don't usually think about boundaries, they come up all the time in families and between friends. As we go through cancer treatment or recovery, we are likely to bump into some previously ignored rules. It is smart to consider how best to manage our connections with other people as we negotiate cancer treatment and recovery.

No one has their usual energy level during cancer. No one has the same tolerance or patience or capacity to modulate feelings as they did before. Maintaining good relationships with our caregivers, families, friends, and work colleagues may take more thought than it has in the past. The most important rule is to take the best possible care of yourself in all circumstances.

Setting Boundaries: Things To Consider

  • It is important early on to think about how much information you want to share with others. The answer varies depending on the person, but you don't owe anyone any more than you want to share. Remember that, once said, you can't take it back.

  • With your family and close friends, you likely will choose to divulge most of the details of your diagnosis and treatment. If it is important to you, ask them not to share this information.

  • With work colleagues and more distant friends, it is often preferable to say less. If someone presses you for details, it is perfectly OK to say: I would rather not say more about this.

  • If someone begins a story about a friend who had a dire experience with cancer, feel free to stop the conversation: Please don't tell me this story; it is not helpful.

  • It is important to preserve your energy and time for the important parts of your life. If you want to go out in the evening, take a nap in the afternoon. Accept invitations with the caveat that you may need to cancel at the last moment. Prioritize your usual tasks and consider what can be left undone or delegated to someone else.

  • Limit what you take on. A good habit is to start from No when someone makes a request or extends an invitation, you may decide that you want to accept, but begin your thought process from the other perspective. Plan everything in pencil and tell your friends that you may need to cancel at the last moment.

  • Developing the best possible relationship with your doctors and nurses is important. Remember that their role is not to be your close friend, but to take the best possible care of you. Tell them enough about yourself so that they understand your priorities and goals. If your concerns are more related to family issues or spirituality or finances, ask them for a referral to someone who can help; don't expect your doctor to have all the answers.

  • Think about how you like to hear medical information or reports after scans. Then have a conversation with your doctor to establish the routine that works best for you. Some people want results ASAP and are fine with a phone call, while others prefer to wait for the next appointment.

  • Living through and with cancer is a time in life to always put yourself and your own needs first.

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Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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