Ways people cope with a cancer diagnosis

Venting anger and frustration

People with cancer sometimes take out their anger and frustration on those around them. This can upset family members and friends. It may help to remember that people often vent their feelings onto those close to them. They do this because these people are safe outlets. They know you’ll still be there for them, even if they behave badly or create tension.

In most cases, the person is really frustrated and angry about the cancer and the losses it brings, but this can be hard to put into words. So they may take out angry feelings on family, friends, or anyone who happens to be around at the time.

Acting passive

Sometimes a person with cancer seems to become childlike and passive, looking to others for direction. It can be very hard for an adult child to see a parent act this way. Try to understand that this is one way of acting out how helpless and scared they feel. These are normal feelings to have when a person has cancer.

Though the disease may limit their ability to do some things, it’s usually best for your friend to keep living as normally as possible. Continuing to be a responsible adult can give them a sense of meaning, confidence, and control. Giving in to feelings of dependence may make your friend feel even more helpless and out of control – more like a victim. You may feel the need to overprotect them, but in the long run that probably isn’t helpful.

Fear and anxiety

The cancer diagnosis and treatment phase is usually an anxious and uncertain time. There’s fear about the many changes that come with cancer – money and job changes, body changes, and even changes in personal relationships. Because they have so much anxiety in their lives, your friend may seem upset or frightened for no reason that you can see. Sometimes this anxiety may come across as harshness or meanness. You may find that you have fights when you only want to help.

The “blame game”

Sometimes people with cancer blame themselves for getting the disease because of something they did or did not do. As a friend or family member, you may also feel guilty or you may blame them, too. You may express this by changing the way you act toward your friend. Other family members may have these same feelings.

How you can respond to these ways of coping

Try not to react emotionally to the changes your friend is dealing with. Understand that this will likely last only a short time, and it comes from all of the fear and anxiety that’s part of having and dealing with cancer.

Blaming yourself and each other can be barriers to a healthy relationship. Try not to play the “blame game.” Encourage your friend not to blame themselves for what’s going on. Moving forward is the only option. If you feel guilty as a friend or loved one, it’s OK to express your regrets, apologize, and move on. Try not to live in the past, but focus on a hopeful future.

During this time, you will need to overlook some of these types of behavior and be ready to offer extra forgiveness, understanding, and support. Give your friend time to adjust. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Think about how scared you would be if this were happening to you. This can help you to let go of minor arguments and troubles and move on.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: October 1, 2016 Last Revised: October 1, 2016

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