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Impact of diagnosis on family and friends

Cancer is difficult for everyone it affects. Your family needs to adjust to the diagnosis too. They may feel uncomfortable because they don’t know what to say, but feel they should say something. They may be worried about how you will react and wonder what to do if you cry.

How your family communicates now may depend on how they have always communicated. Families who frequently share their feelings may be better able to talk about the disease and the changes it brings. Families in which each member solves problems alone, or one person has played the major role in making decisions, may have more difficulty communicating.

As you express your own feelings, remember that others may need to do the same. They may experience similar fears and anxieties, and need as much information and advice as you do. Family members may feel angry too. They may express their own hurt at your outbursts, at the possibility of losing you, and at their inability to do anything about the disease. They may also fear how the illness will change their lives.

Often, family members are ready to talk at different times. Give them the space to talk when the time feels right.

If your family has difficulty talking about cancer to one another, it may help if they speak to a counsellor or the hospital social worker. If family members deny the reality of cancer or refuse to discuss it, encourage them to come with you to the doctor or the hospital when you are having treatment. This may help them accept your illness.

Easing the way for friends

Helping friends feel at ease can be difficult. At a time when the focus should be on you, you may resent having to do some groundwork to get the support you need.

Often, friends need direction on how to behave with you. They might not be sure that you want company. They might call to ‘see how things are going’, then add as they hang up the phone, ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help’. Take the opportunity to let them know how they can help. Tell your friends exactly what you need from them – be specific. If you can think of something they can do, you’ll be doing both of you a favour.

Cancer can change friendships. Some friends handle it well; others cut off all contact. Friends stay away for different reasons. They may not be able to cope with their feelings or know how to respond to a change in your appearance. Your friends may still care for you, even if they stay away.

If you think that uneasiness rather than fear is keeping a friend from visiting, call them to help ease the way. Remember that you can’t always deal with all the reasons why people avoid you; some still believe that cancer is contagious.

Sometimes you have to be honest with yourself -- are friends staying away or have you withdrawn from them to avoid talking about your fears and anxieties? You may find that talking about your illness helps you cope with it better.

Going it alone

Sometimes people live alone or have no family. This may make them feel lonely or that they have no one to live for.

If you would like company, support groups provide some comfort or offer the encouragement you need to stay positive.