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Woman explaining her cancer diagnosis to her friend in town

4 Ways to Nurture Relationships after a Cancer Diagnosis

Reading time | 4 mins
Alice-May Purkiss describes the reality of maintaining friendships after a life-changing cancer diagnosis


It’s no secret that cancer changes everything.

  • It changes the relationship with your body
  • It changes the way you approach your lifestyle
  • It can affect your mental health
  • It reminds you of your mortality
  • It impacts your work

But one of the things it affects most is your relationships. Cancer can make or break relationships with friends, family, or partners.

We all hope our relationships will last despite the strain of a life-threatening diagnosis. Of course, your friends will always be there for you! Your partner will stick around. Your family will be supportive.

But the reality is more complex.

According to a survey by War on Cancer, 65% of respondents had friends or relatives disappear after their diagnosis.

What you can do to keep relationships intact

Not so long ago, I hosted a panel around cancer and friendship. We talked about the knottiest issues arising from this topic.

Unsurprisingly, we'd all be affected in some way by changing friendship dynamics. Some had friends who straight-up ghosted. Others had a "caring" friend who recommended everything from turmeric to yoga as a "cure." 

It left me thinking. What advice would I'd give to newly-diagnosed patients about nurturing their friendships? When a friend randomly ghosts you, it isn't very pleasant. After a cancer diagnosis, ghosting can feel like the end of the world.

Here are a few tips that I've picked up along my journey with cancer:

1. Honesty is the best policy

Communication is vital for both parties (patient and friend/loved one). For the patient, it's essential to talk to your friends and loved ones about what you want and need. It's also crucial to remember that these things might change from day to day. And that's alright!

Going through cancer treatment is traumatic. Every patient I know (and there are a lot now!) said their needs during treatment would change from one day to the next. The joke that made them cry only two days before? Suddenly they think it's the funniest thing in the world.

It's about being honest with your loved ones about your feelings. Tell them what you need without beating around the bush.

Is one family member insisting that kale and yoga are key to making it through treatment? But the idea of doing Child's Pose right now makes you feel sick?

Then let them know.

2. Talk to people who “get” it

Finding people in a similar situation can help. Peer support is the perfect antidote to any isolation you may feel with a cancer diagnosis.

Talking to people who understand can reduce loneliness and offer valuable comfort. Many organisations can help with general cancer concerns or find connections specific to your cancer type or age group.

3. Don’t be afraid to say or do the “wrong” thing

If you're the friend of someone diagnosed with cancer, remember forgiveness is crucial. It’s important to remember that sometimes you’re going to get things wrong. Likewise, your friend might lash out sometimes, and it'll feel unfair. But forgiveness is the only way to get through this.

One of the things that came up on my panel was that it's better to try something and stumble a bit. We all appreciated the friends who put the effort in for us, even if they didn't know what they were doing. As for the friends that disappeared off the face of the earth? Not so much.

If you're a friend of someone diagnosed with cancer, take the time to "read the room." The grief and shock that comes with cancer can make communication difficult. Try to figure out what your friend is telling you, even if they're unclear about it.

Taking charge can sometimes be helpful too. This is especially true in the early days. Your loved one will be so thrown, they’ll have trouble remembering their name, let alone the many tasks of daily life.

So, if you have time, something along these lines may help:

  • Delivering food packages
  • Popping around to take care of the dishes
  • Organise something for the days when they're feeling well
  • Checking in via text
  • Talking about anything but cancer (unless your loved one wants to discuss their diagnosis!)

Any of these will make a massive difference to your loved one's overall well-being.

The truth is, navigating relationships is hard at the best of times. Throwing a life-threatening illness into the mix can make things feel impossible.

But, when I was ill in 2015 and 2016, the friends I valued most were those who showed up for me again and again. They weren't perfect - no one is. But they supported me in the best way they knew how.

I appreciated that sometimes people got it wrong. They said something clunky or felt uncomfortable around me - some days more than others. Or they had their own stuff going on and needed to take a step back for a second. 

This was all completely understandable. I didn't feel abandoned or betrayed when this stuff happened. I knew my friends also had their own lives, feelings, and responsibilities.

4. Remember to be kind

When thinking about relationships and cancer, I remember feeling lost about handling my situation. So, how could I expect anyone else to know how to handle the situation? We were all learning as we went, so compassion was essential for myself and others.

Compassion is the difference between a relationship lasting beyond cancer and one that doesn't.

So, if you're in a situation where a loved one is sick or you're the one undergoing treatment, always be kind.

NPS-IE-NP-00647 November 2022