Living with and beyond cancer

Impact on friendships and family

Having cancer can be stressful and can impact on relationships with friends and family, not just at diagnosis and during initial treatment, but also after treatment has finished.
Many people are frightened of cancer and find it difficult to know what to say to people with it or how to show their affection and support without causing further distress to the person with cancer. It is therefore common for people who have had cancer to say that some friends had not been able to talk to them about it or to support them in the way they would have liked, whereas others who they hadn’t counted as close friends had surprised them in how much support they had offered. Norma was surprised that even friends who were health professionals had not visited her during her illness. Some people said these issues had resulted in lasting changes to friendships, saying that they no longer pursued close relationships with people who had not ‘been there’ for them during their illness, and invested more time and effort into relationships with those who had supported them.
While some people find it difficult to talk about cancer at all, others may be comfortable talking about practical aspects but not emotional ones, or vice versa; this applies to both people with cancer and their relatives and friends. Several people said that talking to friends about the emotional impact of their illness and its treatment had been helpful; some said friends had also provided practical support with housework and childcare. Talking to other people who have also had cancer can be helpful; Frances had met an old school friend who she hadn’t seen for years who’d had the same type of cancer as her and they now kept in touch.
Friends and family may not always understand how people feel after cancer treatment finishes; Jennie found it unhelpful when friends lectured her about getting on with her life when she still didn’t feel up to it. Olivia hadn’t told all her friends about her breast cancer because she had made very little fuss about it.
Friends and family can also experience strong emotions when someone close to them gets cancer, and people with cancer often say it can be difficult to cope with other people’s emotions as well as their own. Diane explained that she didn’t want people with glum faces around her all the time but neither did she want people to ignore her illness.
Family members can find it difficult to cope when a relative has cancer, and some people who wanted to discuss their illness with other people said that certain relatives had not felt able to do so. Others said that talking about the illness with family had brought them closer together and strengthened relationships, particularly where they had thought death a probable outcome. A man who had testicular cancer said that talking openly about his illness had helped his children to learn that cancer need not be a death sentence.
Some people said their close family had been supportive and looked after them while they were ill. People sometimes say they are determined to survive their cancer because of their family.
People who were in remission from cancer often said that their family worried about the possibility that it might recur, probably more so than they did themselves. Friends and family often raised the topic of the cancer in conversation and needed reassurance that the person was not about to die. Some found this annoying; Sandra’s colleagues frequently asked her if she was OK, so when she changed jobs she didn’t tell her new colleagues about her cancer. Pauline, who is living beyond colorectal cancer, said her family nag her when she smokes. Sometimes people felt guilty about the impact their cancer had had on their family, and believed it was harder for others to deal with. Other people said that family relationships had returned to normal.
Some people told us they were concerned that their sons or daughters might be at risk of developing cancer by inheriting a genetic predisposition to the condition, particularly where they knew of cancer in other relatives. Others said that their sons or daughters were themselves worried and were seeking tests. At present only 5–10 percent of cancers are thought to be caused by an inherited faulty gene. Inheriting a faulty gene does not mean that you will develop cancer but that you are more likely to do so than someone who doesn’t have that gene.
Many people living beyond cancer had advised their offspring to get screened for cancer. For instance, Alan (Interview 33) and Jim, who both had prostate cancer, advised their sons to have PSA (prostate specific antigen) tests. Carole, who had had breast cancer, urged her daughter to have mammograms and her granddaughters to self-examine their breasts. A woman who had ovarian cancer told her daughter to ensure her ovaries were removed if she ever needed a hysterectomy. Thomas’ daughters were both doctors, so he assumed they would get appropriate checks. Derek’s daughter had a benign (harmless) breast lump found on a mammogram. Two people who had had colorectal cancer had sons who had already experienced bowel symptoms which had been checked out.
Some people had been tested for the presence of a faulty gene. It can take months to get the results of genetic tests, so some were still waiting to find out. Others had tested positive and had encouraged other family members to be tested. People with a strong family history of certain cancers can be referred by their GP for genetic counselling and testing, but tests can also be obtained privately. A woman we spoke to who had ovarian cancer, and relatives with breast and ovarian cancer, paid £1600 to have samples sent to the USA for testing; she was found to have a faulty gene but her son and daughter were found to be clear.

​Last reviewed October 2018.
Last updated August 2015.

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