Support from family and friends

Support from family and friends can be crucial in coping with a serious illness. Many people had received either emotional or practical support from different individuals. Some had sent cards and flowers, had listened, or prayed or fasted for them; others had done shopping, cooked meals, helped with childcare, provided lifts or accompanied them to hospital. People sometimes said family relationships became stronger as a result of their illness, others said they relied more on friends. 

Those with spouses or partners often praised them for accompanying them to hospital appointments, visiting them in hospital, giving practical care, raising their spirits, listening to their moans and putting up with their moodiness. A woman whose husband took early retirement when she retired on health grounds described him as both her rock and her pillow. Another had gained emotional support from her partner and said that health professionals did not give such support. 

Women told us that their husbands took on additional household chores or childcare as well as giving hands-on personal care. Husbands were also aware that their wives were managing roles that they had been accustomed to perform around the house and garden (also see 'Roles, relationships and sexuality'). Several people commented that their partner had a very difficult time - some even thought it might be harder to cope with than being the patient. One woman said her husband had contained his feelings while looking after her and was close to a nervous breakdown when she achieved remission. Illness can put a great strain on a relationship - some people argued with their spouses; and some spouses couldn't help much because they had their own health problems.

Grown-up children provided support by visiting, providing a break for spouses, giving lifts or accompanying people on hospital visits, offering temporary or long term accommodation, sourcing information about the illness and updating friends and family via email. One woman rented a flat in a different city to obtain treatment that was unavailable where she lived. Her daughter, who also moved to the new area, invited her to live with her.

Many parents of young children try to protect them from the illness and minimise the disruption to their lives. But children often want to visit their parent in hospital and their visits could be uplifting. One man's young daughter had watched him having various procedures done in hospital.

Young, and especially single, people often relied heavily on their parents to look after them during their illness. Parents accompanied them to consultations and treatment sessions and sometimes stayed in hospital overnight. A man, aged 22 at diagnosis had found it useful having his parents at consultations to ask questions that he wouldn't have thought of. Having previously left home, he moved back to his parents to be looked after. A 16-year-old at diagnosis said her mother had wished she could have the illness for her. 

Sometimes illness leads to unexpected contact from family which is not always welcome. For example a 20-year-old had become upset when her estranged father visited her in hospital and gave her a cuddly toy, which she found inappropriate for her age.

Young people said their brothers and sisters often tried to be supportive or protective, but some preferred it when a sibling just treated them normally. Adults said their siblings helped through talking, or by visiting and doing housework. One woman said her younger brother recorded music for her to listen to during chemotherapy and, when she got a serious infection, her sister walked out of an exam to rush her to hospital (see 'Infections during and after treatment'). One woman said she and her brother weren't close but had been in email contact. A man said his brother and sister had been no help. 

Adults said their parents had often been supportive by visiting them when they were ill, coming to look after them or looking after their children while they attended hospital. A man whose parents lived nearby said he went to their house when he wanted looking after. A woman said her parents travelled for four hours to be with her after her diagnosis, and her father, who was retired, came every fortnight to take her to chemotherapy sessions, saving her partner or mother from taking time off work. Parents sometimes found it hard to show their true feelings and fears' one woman said she had desperately wanted her mother to cry about the diagnosis but instead she hid her feelings and adopted a fighting attitude because she thought that's what her daughter needed. Another said her mother had been unsympathetic, saying she only had a 'minor cancer'.

It can be hard for friends and family to know what best to do when someone is ill. Serious illness can be a testing time for friendships as some people find it difficult to talk about illness or to know how to help, and some people who are ill find it difficult to accept help. People voiced disappointment when friends they had expected to be supportive were not. A young man who spent five months in hospital had felt lonely because his friends stopped visiting after a while. Offers of help sometimes came from friends who they considered less close. Some friendships were lost but new ones gained. In their attempts to help, some friends offered things that weren't welcome, but those who asked how they could help - and kept offering - were very much appreciated. 

Friends helped with child care, transport, cooking and odd jobs as well as talking about the illness and socialising. Some sent cards and gifts or telephoned or visited regularly. A woman said some friends had 'gone the extra mile' to ensure she had things to look forward to. Some young people were grateful that their friends had been supportive on their return to school or college after treatment, especially if their appearance had changed. One young woman had three male friends who regularly visited her and took her out, making her feel she was having a normal life. Another said her friends gave her a tin containing lots of small presents, one for each day that she felt rough. 

Work colleagues, teachers and other acquaintances were sometimes supportive. A GP said he had received cards and good wishes from his patients. Even relative strangers could be very helpful - a woman who had to move to obtain treatment that wasn't available where she lived was helped by a friend of a friend who lived nearby.

Last reviewed February 2016.

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