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5 Steps to Let Friends in When You’re Struggling with Cancer

Reading time | 4 mins

It can be tempting to shut people out when you feel grief or sadness after a cancer diagnosis. You may feel raw and vulnerable. The thought of sharing these emotions can be overwhelming.

You might minimize your pain and the severity of your diagnosis and treatment, instead of opening up. You may pretend you’re “fine.”

But how long can you go on pretending? What happens when active treatment ends and you’re falling apart a year later?

You may find that you have no one to turn to if you’ve kept your friends at a distance. People can have a hard time understanding the recovery and depression that might come along with life after cancer.

Protecting your friends and family from your sadness may seem easier in the beginning. But this could also lead to a greater sense of isolation and sadness down the line. I learned this lesson from my own battles with cancer and depression.

Letting people in when you’re raw with emotion can be terrifying. So I find it’s helpful to open up to your loved ones in stages.

Here are my tips to protect your heart and to teach your friends how to support you through this difficult period of treatment and potential depression.

Test the waters

Starting slow could help you to feel more comfortable about sharing your feelings. First, try to share a bit about the negative side of your diagnosis or feelings. Use this as an opportunity to observe how each person reacts.

I started by sharing how tough the cancer journey had been for me by describing some of the physical effects. I found people could relate to that more.

I also used metaphors to explain the long-term impact cancer was having on my life and mental state. One metaphor I love is that cancer is a passenger in your car. During treatment, cancer is riding shotgun. It’s in control and guides all of your decisions.

As you end treatment, cancer moves to the backseat and maybe eventually the trunk as the years pass. But if you hit a speed bump or slam on the breaks, cancer can go flying back to the front seat and take control.

This approach to sharing with my less emotionally open friends and family helped me test the waters without being too vulnerable.

I found that many people surprise you and show that they can handle the more difficult side of your experience. Lean into that.

Remember: a good support wants to be around you even when you’re sad. You won’t feel pressure to change how you’re feeling if that person is offering the right support.

Go in prepared

Not everyone in your life is equipped to be emotionally supportive. That doesn’t mean they don’t love you. It just means they may be facing their own emotional challenges or may not have the life skills to handle the weight of your needs.

Recognizing this reality ahead of time can help lessen any potential disappointment on your part.

I knew that some friends who had been in my life for a long time would not excel at emotional support. At first this disappointed me and I felt let down. But my husband helped me find jobs I could assign to them instead, like organizing meals, sharing information about my treatment, or caring for my dog. These specific jobs allowed them to show they cared for me in other ways.

So don’t give up if someone isn’t equipped to be emotionally supportive! This friend may not be your emotional support. But you might be able to rely on them for other needs like childcare, errands, or treatment transportation.

Don’t beat around the bush

Once you’ve figured out the people who make up your support system, be honest. Remember that your illness is not you.

Try not to sugarcoat what you’re going through or what you need. Your friends and family will only know your needs and the severity of the situation if you tell them.

A work friend of mine also struggled with mental illness. She became my lifeline. I went into her office and closed the door and told her that I was at my lowest and just needed to cry. I needed to be told everything would be OK and that I would get through this. She was my rock during this difficult time.

Help them help you

The symptoms and weight of the experience can be hard to understand. Especially if your friends and family have not experienced depression firsthand or with a loved one. They may not understand how to show up for you.

Sharing your personal experience, literature about your condition, and other medical resources with your loved ones helps guide them and builds their support skills.

My husband and I knew we’d get many questions about treatment and updates. We carefully crafted a message for friends and family about what I was going through and how they could help. We also explicitly called out what was not helpful. For example, I hated talking on the phone but loved texts and snail mail. By making my wishes clear to our loved ones, they were able to support me in the exact ways I needed.

Give them tools

Think about what you need at the moment. Then ask for it.

Maybe you want someone to listen or be a shoulder to cry on. Maybe you just want a bit of distraction. Maybe you don’t need your supports to do anything other than to be aware and considerate.

Remember that sharing is completely up to you. Do it on your own terms. Share as much or as little as you want.

Just don’t be shy to give people a chance to show up for you. It can result in an amazing expansion of your support system during difficult times.

For more information on how to manage a cancer diagnosis, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team. 

 NPS-US-NP-00526 DECEMBER 2019