When Someone You Know Has Cancer

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What to expect when someone you know has cancer

Will the person with cancer have physical changes?

There are some common physical changes shared by many people with cancer. The cancer itself causes some of these changes and others are the result of side effects of cancer treatment. Keep in mind that each cancer journey is different. The person with cancer may or may not have any of the following:

  • Hair loss, including eyebrows and eyelashes
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Appetite loss or increase
  • Changes in how things taste or smell
  • Extreme tiredness called fatigue (more information follows)
  • Pale skin and lips, or changes in skin color
  • Disfigurement (for example, the loss of a limb or a breast after cancer surgery)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Problems with sleep
  • Poor concentration (sometimes called chemo brain)

For many people with cancer, the hardest side effect to deal with is fatigue. People report that fatigue can be overwhelming, and they are surprised at how tired they can feel long after treatment ends. It can take a long time to heal after surgery, and people can feel tired for months after an operation. Chemotherapy can involve many weeks of strong medicines that worsen fatigue as the body heals. People getting radiation treatment also report extreme fatigue. The person with cancer may also experience stress and emotional concerns, which add to exhaustion. Fatigue can go on for many months after treatment is over.

How will the person’s emotions be affected?

Each person reacts in their own way to cancer and its treatment. It’s normal to feel sad and grieve over the changes that a cancer diagnosis brings. The person’s emotions and mood can change from day to day, even from hour to hour. This is normal. A person with cancer may go through any or all of the following emotions and thoughts:

  • Uncertainty
  • Anger
  • A sense of lack of control
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Guilt
  • Mood swings
  • Much stronger and more intense feelings
  • A sense of being disconnected or isolated from others
  • Loneliness
  • Resentment
  • Grief

Over time, the person may discover some changes that are good:

  • A greater sense of resilience or strength
  • Peace, or a feeling of being at ease
  • A clearer idea of their priorities in life
  • More appreciation for their quality of life and the people they care about

Cancer can be very unpredictable. Someone with cancer can feel good one day and terrible the next. Expect that your friend or family member will have good days and bad days. Learning to live with uncertainty is part of learning to live with cancer, both for the patient and for the people around them.

There may be times when the uncertainty and fear cause the person with cancer to seem angry, depressed, or withdrawn. This is normal and is a part of the process of grieving what was lost to the cancer (things like health, energy, time). Over time, most people are able to adjust to the new reality in their lives and go forward. Some may need extra help from a support group or a mental health professional to learn to deal with the changes cancer has brought into their lives. For more on this, please see Anxiety, Fear, and Depression. You can read it online at www.cancer.org, or call us for a copy.

How do people cope with cancer?

People develop all kinds of coping styles during their lives. Some people are quite private, while others are more open and talk about their feelings. These coping styles help people manage difficult personal situations, although some styles work better than others.

Some people use humor and find it to be a relief from the serious nature of the illness. But some may become withdrawn and isolated from family and friends. A cancer diagnosis creates a lot of change. People often try to maintain as much control as they can in order to feel more secure. Some people become very angry or sad. They might be grieving the loss of their own healthy self-image, or the loss of control over their own lives.

Some people find it helps to simply be hopeful and do what they can to maintain that hope. Hope means different things to different people. And people can hope for many things while facing cancer.

You might assume that someone who is positive and optimistic must be denying the fact that they have cancer. If the person with cancer seems upbeat and unaffected by having cancer, don’t assume they’re in denial. Making the most of every day may simply be their way of coping. As long as they are getting medical care, they’re probably not in denial, and their way of coping with cancer should be respected. For more information, please see Coping With Cancer in Everyday Life.

Last Medical Review: 05/13/2014
Last Revised: 02/05/2015