fbpx How to Support a Loved One With Cervical Cancer
A woman holds the shoulder of another woman in a head wrap.
A woman holds the shoulder of another woman in a head wrap.

How to Support a Loved One With Cervical Cancer

This difficult journey has many do's and don'ts. Listening may be your most important asset.
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Written by

Gabi Conti

Learning your loved one has been diagnosed with cervical cancer can feel as if you just won the worst kind of lottery. Why them? Why us? Why me?

Navigating how to support the one you love as they go through their diagnosis and treatment can feel overwhelming at times. Knowing what you should or shouldn't say, or figuring out how to be there for a person you love while seeing them sick might be difficult for you as well.

What should you expect?

When most people learn they have cancer, they may take it as a death sentence or become filled with the fear and uncertainty of not knowing their fate.

"It is important [for] the people who support the newly diagnosed to understand that there will be a vast range of emotions, including anger, resentment, sadness, disappointment, blame and shame," explained Jennifer Kowalski, a licensed professional counselor specializing in grief and loss who practices at Thriveworks in Cheshire, Connecticut.

"There's no 'good' kind of cancer to have, but cervical cancer has an extra layer of hard, making it even harder to support," said Bethany Hart, a small-cell cervical cancer survivor and peer mentor with Iris by OncoHealth, a telehealth service based in Indianapolis. "A loved one with cervical cancer may experience a lot of bowel and bladder issues and side effects, which for me, invoked feelings of embarrassment and shame. It's a very loaded diagnosis."

Since cervical cancer rates can decline with the use of the HPV vaccine and routine Pap smears, it is possible for people diagnosed with cervical cancer to feel shame or blame for not seeking preventive treatment, Kowalski pointed out.

It's not personal

As your loved one comes to terms with their cancer diagnosis, it is possible their range of emotions might feel personally directed at you.

"It may feel personal, but it is typically just your loved one trying to figure it all out. They tend to release these emotions around the people they feel closest with, and when something is so baffling, it really is not possible to find a way to say it eloquently," Kowalski explained.

Advice isn't always helpful

When your loved one is battling cervical cancer, it might be your instinct to give them advice in an attempt to make them feel better. But oftentimes in these cases, advice can do more harm than good.

"Although well intentioned, it was very hard to listen to advice or rationalization attempts from people who hadn't lost their fertility nearly overnight, hadn't experienced firsthand the gripping fear of cancer, or had to make sense of a marriage moving forward that physically wouldn't be what we had planned," explained Hart, who went from being pregnant to losing her daughter and getting diagnosed with an aggressive form of small-cell cervical cancer. "The support I needed more than anything was simply a listening ear and space to feel the very big emotions I felt."

Today, Hart is six years cancer-free and thanks the daughter she lost for saving her life.

Kowalski suggested alternatives to offering advice or rationalizations.

"Try your best to just listen," she said. "Do not react and do not try to fix it unless you are an oncologist."

Be there for your loved one

If you are at a loss for words or not sure what you can say to make your loved one's situation better, offer to be by their side through it all and ask them what they need from you, as every situation is different.

"Maybe they need someone to clean their house or bring them dinner. Maybe they need someone to sit with them at doctor's appointments or when they come home from their treatments," Kowalski advised. "Your loved one needs to be in control of deciding how things go and what they need, and your job is to simply do the best you can to meet those needs. It does not mean that you must drop everything for this person, but explain that you will do what you can within your means."

Understand their triggers and allow space

Oftentimes, such as in the case of Hart, a cervical cancer diagnosis can turn your family planning journey upside down or erase it all together.

"I think giving big space around children, pregnancy [and] baby showers are a gift you can give to someone who has lost their fertility because of cervical cancer," Hart explained. "I'm six years removed and it's still very hard for me sometimes to hear someone's joyful news or get that baby shower invitation."

While not everyone loses their fertility with cervical cancer, some patients do. Oftentimes, those cervical cancer patients might not be ready to hear solutions on how they can cope.

"It's easy to want to interject solutions as a way to help a loved one cope—'You can adopt' or 'Freeze your eggs'—but it's often so hard to hear those things," Hart said of her experience. "They're reminders of everything you lost because of cancer, and while you're in the thick of treatment, it's often impossible to see the silver lining or feel hopeful about alternative options."

What if I don't agree with my loved one's treatment choices?

If your loved one with cervical cancer is a minor under your care, it's your job to make sure they get the proper treatment. However, if your loved one with cervical cancer is an adult able to make their own decisions, it is their body and their choice.

"We cannot do more than give them all the information they need and allow them to decide," Kowalski advised.

"Giving so much grace is so helpful to the patient going through it, and even if you don't agree with treatment choices, showing support for their emotions and circumstances can coexist," Hart said.

However, if you cannot bear to watch your loved one suffer, you should remember the role you play in the relationship is your choice.

"If you are greatly impacted by their decision, please have an honest conversation about how this is impacting you, and then together you can choose how the relationship continues. I don't think it will change your loved one's opinion about their treatment, but maybe it means that you say goodbye before they appear too sick," Kowalski said.

Be honest

Even if you have had cervical cancer yourself, do not assume you know what your loved one is going through, as everyone's cervical cancer journey is different. Instead, share your experience with cervical cancer only if your loved one asks you.

"Do not make light of the situation. Do not tell them that everything will work out perfectly," Kowalski advised. "There is a difference between being positive and saying that they will beat this. Your loved one spends much of their time wondering if they will survive and would most likely prefer honest conversations over those [discussions] that gloss over and minimize what they are going through. Instead, you should offer to talk about how they are feeling in this moment."

Accept the facts

Similar to most cancers, there are four stages of cervical cancer that determine the treatment and prognosis. Patients can recover from cervical cancer, but there is a chance it can come back. The lasting side effects of treatment can impact fertility, and sexual and mental health. Patients generally receive less invasive treatment and a better prognosis when cervical cancer is detected early compared to when it is discovered late.

Cervical cancer can take a toll on the patient's mental health, as anxiety is often sparked by fear the cancer will come back and depression can arise from treatment's side effects, Kowalski said.

When cervical cancer is found early, it is usually localized in the cervix and there is a 92 percent five-year relative survival rate. If cervical cancer is detected after it spreads from the cervix and uterus to surrounding lymph nodes, the survival rate drops to 58 percent. If the cancer has spread to nearby organs or distant parts of the body, there is an 18 percent survival rate, according to the American Cancer Society.