Worry About Family, Children and Friends

People facing cancer often worry about how their family and friends are coping with the changes that cancer often brings into our lives. A diagnosis of cancer will almost certainly change the way you relate to your loved ones and the way they relate to you. Remember that these relationship changes can be positive. Many people find that relationships become more meaningful and deeper. Still, in some cases, those close to you may feel so scared, confused or overwhelmed by your illness they back away instead of getting closer. Sometimes because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing, they say nothing. This can be very hurtful. Although it is hard, try not to be judgmental. Many people living with cancer also find that those they expected to be supportive aren’t and yet are surprised by those who do step up. It’s important for you to find those people you can rely on and let the others deal with your situation in the way that’s best for them.

One of the most important things you can do to stay connected to family and friends is to be open and honest in how you are feeling and ask them to do the same. People often don’t know what to say so they may say the wrong thing or nothing at all. Tell them honestly about your diagnosis, how the disease and treatment might be affecting you, and how they can and cannot help you. Let them know if it’s okay to ask you questions or if something they are doing is adding to your stress and anxiety. It may be useful to put together a list of tasks with which the help from family and friends would be appreciated. For example, you may want a friend or relative to accompany you to medical appointments, or you may ask someone to help shop for food and prepare meals, drive children where they need to go, or assist with household tasks. Be specific about what you need when people offer help.

Your network of support—your relationships at home, at work and elsewhere—make a difference in your life. These relationships can contribute to feelings of anger, sadness and loneliness; or feelings of comfort, love and support. There may be some friends or family members that are unable to be a support to you right now because of personal issues or avoidance of the situation. You may need to accept that distance right now and surround yourself with people who do have a supportive influence.

Close Relationships Can be Stressful Due To...
  • The need to switch roles from caring for others to being cared for yourself
  • Your wish to protect your children from the fears and stresses of cancer
  • Your need for more practical help—and sometimes disappointment with the help you may or may not receive
  • For the 5% to 10% of families that have an inherited cancer syndrome, a sense of guilt that you may have passed on a high risk of cancer to your children
You hope and expect that your family members and friends will be your greatest source of support. But even loving families and well-meaning friends can add to the stress of learning to be a cancer survivor. Sometimes you continue to try to be a protector and caretaker, even when you long for some care for yourself. Cancer survivors often comment that others simply do not understand how draining treatment can be on all levels—physically, psychologically, emotionally. This is often why people affected by cancer find it difficult to ask for and receive help. Attending support groups, couples workshops, family counseling, educational programs, and religious retreats are very helpful for finding new ways to cope and communicate.

There are times when it is beneficial for a couple or the whole family to sit down with a cancer counselor to talk about relationship or family issues related to the diagnosis and treatment. Your oncologist, oncology social worker or local community support organization should be able to provide you with a list of qualified professionals in your area. Since there is a generally a charge for private counseling, you may want to check with your insurance company to determine what services and providers are covered under your plan.

Impact on Children
Children understand the world through their parents. How a child reacts depends very much on how the parents or other close adults are dealing with their own feelings. Difficulty in discussing these issues may create distance in relationships that were once close. It is helpful for parents to explain the facts in a way that allows children to understand and participate in what is happening in their lives. When speaking with your children let them take the lead. Answer their questions directly and with simple language. Try not to down play their concerns and worries. Remember that young children believe the world revolves around them and may be worried that something that they did caused your cancer. They may be most concerned with how this will affect them so be sure to let them know of any expected changes in normal routines. Although we may want to protect our children all of the stressful parts of life, this is impossible. It is important to teach them how to cope with challenges that they are sure to face. Learning to cope with difficult situations will increase their sense of self-confidence for the future.

Signs to watch for that suggest a child could use some professional help:
  • Changes in a child’s sleeping patterns
  • A drop in school grades
  • Unusual misbehavior in school
  • Getting in arguments or fights with friends
  • Emotional withdrawal
The National Cancer Institute’s free booklet, When Someone in Your Family Has Cancer, can help families start difficult discussions. (Call 1-800-4-CANCER). Counseling offers children one-to-one time with a mental health professional who is expert in helping them express thoughts, fears, and emotions. If you feel your child could benefit from individual counseling, check with your pediatrician, school nurse or social worker for a referral to a specialist.

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