Cancer Support: Family, Friends, and Relationships

A cancer diagnosis changes your life, but it also affects the people who care about you. You’re already dealing with your own distress about having cancer. And it can be hard to talk about it when you know people who care about you will be upset by the news. You may wonder: “How can I tell my children?” “How will my…

Cancer Support: Family, Friends, and Relationships

Topic Overview

A cancer diagnosis changes your life, but it also affects the people who care about you. You’re already dealing with your own distress about having cancer. And it can be hard to talk about it when you know people who care about you will be upset by the news.

You may wonder:

  • “How can I tell my children?”
  • “How will my friends react?”
  • “How do I even begin to tell people about this?”

It helps to think about how and what you want to tell family, friends, and coworkers and to understand how people may react.

Family and friends

It may be easier if you prepare for those conversations ahead of time:

  • What do you want people to know? Think about what you do and don’t want people to know about your cancer. If someone asks a question you’re not ready to answer, be honest. Say something like, “I’m not really ready to talk about that,” or “I don’t know how I feel about that right now.”
  • What topics are off-limits? Think about topics that are off-limits for you. Maybe you’d prefer that people not say things about God, religion, or faith. Or maybe you would rather not hear stories about other people who have had cancer. It’s okay to say, “I know you’re trying to help, but I don’t find those stories very helpful right now.”
  • What kind of support do you want? Many people will ask what they can do to help you. Think about how you will respond to offers of support and help. It’s easy to say you don’t need any help, especially when you’re used to doing everything yourself and taking care of others. But supporting you will make other people feel good. And you’ll probably find that you really do appreciate the help. Think about making a list of a few things that others could do for you.

Don’t feel that you need to act cheerful or strong if that’s not how you’re feeling. It’s okay to share your true feelings and act the way you feel.

Talking to your children

If you have children, you’re probably worried about how they will deal with the news of your diagnosis. But it’s important to talk to children of all ages about your cancer. And it’s best not to pretend that everything is okay. Even young children will see that you’re tired or that your routine has changed.

Try to pick a time to talk when both you and your children are feeling calm. If possible, have your partner there during the talk, or ask a friend or relative to be with you.

How much you tell your children will depend on their ages and what kind of information they can handle. Encourage them to ask questions, and answer their questions as honestly as you can.

  • Very young children only need to be told that you are sick and that your doctors are helping to make you better.
  • Young children won’t need a lot of information. Remember that they usually don’t have the experience to understand why cancer is so scary. Tell your children the name of the cancer you have and what part of your body it is in. Use words and terms they can understand. Give your children time to ask questions and express how they feel. Look for books or other materials that can help you explain to your children what is happening. Reassure your children that no matter what happens, someone will take care of them.
  • Teenagers are generally struggling to become independent from their parents. Finding out that you have cancer may make that process more difficult. Tell your teens what type of cancer you have, what part of your body it is in, and what type of treatment you will have. Give teens plenty of chances to talk to you. Encourage them to talk to other adults and to spend time with their friends. Be honest, and answer their questions as well as you can. Tell them how they can help you.

Talking to adult family members

Be honest with adult children, siblings, parents, and your partner. Discuss your options with them. Make sure they know your wishes for treatment and other major decisions. Make the most of your time with them, and share your feelings.

Talking to friends and coworkers

When you talk to friends and coworkers about cancer, share only what you’re comfortable sharing. Be prepared for offers of help and support.

People’s reactions

You’ve probably felt a range of emotions since you found out you had cancer. The people who care about you will have a range of reactions too. Some will get very emotional. Others may try to hide their feelings. Some may feel awkward and not know what to say, or they may seem angry for no reason.

It’s not easy when you’re dealing with your own feelings and other people’s reactions too. But if you can, try to be open if people in your life want to talk with you about your diagnosis and how they’re feeling about it.

Sometimes, people’s reactions to your cancer diagnosis can really let you down. Cancer is scary for most people. Some may avoid you or avoid talking about cancer because they don’t know how to deal with their fear. This can hurt, especially if you expected their support. Think about saying something like, “I understand that you may be upset or not know what to say, but I’d like to be able to talk with you about what’s happening. I could really use your support right now.”

Your relationship with your partner

Your partner probably feels scared about your health and your future. He or she may feel powerless to help you.

Cancer can bring couples closer together, but it also can cause a lot of stress in a relationship. The key is to keep communicating with each other. Share your worries and your thoughts often, and learn about your cancer and treatment together. Some couples find it helpful to start a journal they can both write in and share with each other.

Let your partner know how he or she can help you. You may want him or her to come to appointments with you or to help lift your spirits when you’re feeling down. You may just need your partner to be a good listener when you need to talk.

It’s important to find ways that you and your partner can feel close. You may not feel interested in sex, especially during your treatment. That’s okay. There are other ways to feel close, such as holding hands or cuddling.

Understand that your partner may need some time alone to rest, take care of other things, or work through his or her feelings about your illness. If you’d prefer not to be alone during those times, ask a friend or relative to spend time with you.

Your family life

Cancer can impact your family life in many ways. Talking about cancer isn’t easy. And fear, sadness, and other emotions can cause a lot of stress and can strain relationships. You may have financial worries as you work out how to pay medical expenses. And your routines and roles likely will change as you go through treatment and need more help from others.

Don’t be afraid to look beyond your family for help. Let friends and extended family know what they can do for you. And consider counseling and support groups, which can help you and your family deal with this difficult time.

Where to learn more

The following booklets from the National Cancer Institute’s website may be helpful:

  • Taking Time: Support for People With Cancer (
  • When Someone You Love Is Being Treated for Cancer (


Current as ofDecember 19, 2018

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD – Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD – Family Medicine
Elizabeth T. Russo MD – Internal Medicine

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