For spouses, families, and friends
Telling a loved one he or she has cancer
Sometimes family members are the first to learn of a loved one’s cancer diagnosis. How does a family decide if they should or when they should tell the person who has the cancer? Are some people too emotionally fragile, too young, or too old to know?
Most people can handle the news that they have cancer, but each person needs time to adjust and figure out what the diagnosis means to them.
If you are a family member trying to decide if you should tell a loved one they have cancer, consider this: you may think you are sparing them bad news, but they probably will sense something is wrong, especially if they start having a lot of tests done and/or don’t feel well. The person with cancer may resent it when they find out family members kept the diagnosis a secret. Although you may think you are protecting them, your loved one might see this as dishonest.
When people with cancer are not told about their diagnosis, they are unable to make important decisions about their treatment and their life. There may be things they want to do, personal matters they want to take care of, or legal papers that may need to be updated. Even when a person has a cancer with a good chance for cure, they still need to discuss treatment options and goals, long-term treatment outcomes, and decisions about end-of-life care, including advance directives (living will and durable power of attorney for health care) with their doctors and their families.
Get the health care team’s support and input in sharing this news with your loved one. It’s their responsibility. They have experience with this and can make it easier on you.
The family’s feelings about cancer
People usually need time to sort out feelings before they can be expressed and shared in the way they want. During this time, friends and family members may be the targets of their loved one’s strong, overwhelming feelings that need to be vented.
If you are the target of anger and frustration, remember you’re not the cause of this anger – you’re a trusted person on whom the anger can be let out. Your loved one is angry about the cancer and how it has affected her or his life. And even though family members and friends usually try to respond with love and friendship, it’s natural for them to feel their own anger and frustration, and sometimes express it, too.
Friends and families may also have a hard time adjusting to the cancer diagnosis. They may have to cope with increased responsibilities while trying to manage many different emotions. On top of this, they want to try to be sensitive to the needs of the person with cancer.
If you are close to the person with cancer, simply saying something like, “I’m here when you’re ready to talk” will help keep the lines of communication open and offer them the chance to share this experience with you. Your presence is also a way to show your support. Don’t be afraid to share your fears and worries with the person with cancer. Being honest about these feelings can allow everyone to work through difficult times together.
Talking with someone who has cancer
You may struggle to find the right words to say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. Know that there is no right way to act or perfect words to say. Just listening is often more helpful than anything you can say. Assuring them of your love and support is one of the most important things you can do. Most people with cancer do not want to face the experience alone and will need support from their family and friends. “I’m here for you” may be the best thing you can say to show your support.
Keep in mind that not everyone with cancer wants to talk about their feelings. They may have other ways to express their emotions, and some people just prefer to keep their feelings private. People with cancer might just want you to help them maintain their normal routine as much as possible. Just be yourself and continue to do things with them as you would if they didn’t have cancer.
Sean, cancer survivor: “I did not like to talk about my cancer with my friends or my family. I just wanted to get it over with. My oncologist had one of his patients who had been diagnosed with testicular cancer a few years ago call me. He had the same treatment I did and was my age so we could easily relate. He told me it would be a tough 6 months but I would get through it. Knowing that he made it through the same treatment was helpful.”
Changes in the family
A diagnosis of cancer changes a family forever. Figuring out what’s for dinner or what your plans are for the weekend is suddenly less important. Family and personal values are questioned and priorities are tested and changed.
Unsettled feelings and arguments may resurface during a family’s struggle with cancer. Often a family must sort out and revisit old, unresolved feelings before they can start to battle cancer together, as a family unit.
Cancer can cause role changes in the family, too. The head of the household may now be more dependent on other family members. Others may need to work outside the home or work different hours. When family members take on new roles, the way they interact within the family can change. New responsibilities may overwhelm some family members.
Parents might look to their children for support. If the children are old enough, they may be asked to take on more responsibilities within the household. These requests often come when children themselves need support. Children might start acting younger and less mature in response to the stress on the family. Teens, who are often rebelling and spending more time with friends, may instead cling to their families for support.
As a friend or family member helping to take care of the patient, you also have needs. Taking care of yourself will allow you to care for others. When your needs are met, the patient will also benefit. Overdoing is different from doing. Know your limits and rest when you need to. This rule applies to both caregivers and patients.
Peter, caregiver for his wife: “As a caregiver, your life is not going to be the same. It’s essential that you maintain a healthy, high-quality level of physical and mental fitness so that you can still carry on with your life, while also helping the one in treatment. Find compassionate and understanding friends who you can talk to relieve your stress. This way, you will be more available, physically and emotionally, to help your cancer partner and to have those candid discussions that are so important. In short, take care of yourself at the same time, paying attention to diet, exercise, and sleep, to better help others and yourself. While being realistic, try to remain optimistic.”
Often families find themselves treating the person with cancer like an invalid, even when the person is fully capable of doing for him- or herself. Sometimes the person with cancer won’t want help with things like bathing and dressing. They may need to at least try to do as much as they can on their own. These wishes should be respected if at all possible.
Although the person with cancer may not want to get outside help, friends and family members should look at their own limits and get any help needed. Certified nursing assistants, home health aides, and other resources can help care for the patient. Talk to the health care team about what you need and what resources might be available.
Sexuality concerns if your partner has cancer
It’s not unusual for people with cancer to withdraw from others, including their partners, when they have changes in their body and self-image. Partners can help their loved one work through their feelings and these changes by offering their love, support, and understanding. It takes time for people with cancer to adjust to the way they feel about themselves and how they look.
People with cancer who have changes that affect their sexuality want to know their partners still care for them and are still attracted to them. As a partner of someone with cancer, there are several ways you can convey these feelings. The first step is talking about your feelings and letting the person with cancer talk about changes in their sexuality, body image, and self-image.
Some people fear physical closeness because they think they can get cancer from their partner, or they’re afraid they will hurt their partner. Cancer is not contagious – you cannot catch it from someone. A person cannot pass cancer to their partner through sex. But in some cases, you may be told to not have sex for a short period of time, for instance, when your partner is recovering from certain types of surgery or when they are more likely to get infections.
Ask the doctor if you need to take any precautions based on the treatment your partner will get. And talk with your partner about your concerns about causing pain or discomfort. While he or she may not feel like having sex for a time, cuddling, holding hands, and other gentle forms of touch are ways to show your love.
Coping within the family
How a family handles cancer depends a lot on how the family has dealt with problems in the past. Those who are used to communicating openly and sharing feelings are usually able to talk about how cancer is affecting them. Families who solve their problems as individuals instead of a team might have more trouble coping with cancer.
Cancer treatment includes care for the patient and the family, not just the cancer. A mental health professional may already be a part of the cancer care team. If not, talk with the doctor or nurse to learn about other resources that can help you and your family cope with cancer.
People with cancer often say that lack of communication in their families is a problem. Changes in responsibilities can cause resentment and anxiety. Some family members may not feel comfortable openly discussing their feelings. Other family members may avoid the person with cancer because they feel as if they have nothing to offer, don’t know how to act, or feel they can’t do anything to help make the situation better. These factors can all make families more distant at a time when they need to pull together. Many families need help with this. Through family counseling, members can learn to deal with changes within the family and discuss their feelings more comfortably.
Family and friends can find ways to relieve their stress by taking part in activities outside the home. Resources outside the home, such as individual counseling or support groups, can serve as outlets for the frustrations you may be facing within your family. You may also want to look at “How can I relieve stress and relax?” in the section “For the person who has cancer” for more ideas on coping.
Last Medical Review: 06/26/2014
Last Revised: 06/26/2014