How cancer can affect your family, friends and partners

Cancer is tough for everyone – and you might find your relationships change as people try to deal with what’s going on.

Struggling to relate?

When the people close to you find out you have cancer, they’ll probably feel a lot of the same things you did.

They might be worried, or upset, or angry, or shocked. They might not know how to respond, so they end up acting weird – when you’d really like them to just be normal.

Suddenly relationships that have been totally natural can feel strange and strained. But keeping friends and family close is important – and being honest and open can really help.


Your friends might be amazing – saying all the right things, doing all the right things, generally being awesome.

But life isn’t always like that. People get awkward. They don’t know what to say. They worry about saying the wrong thing.

Your friends might be asking themselves a whole lot of questions, like:

  • ​What am I supposed to do?
  • How can I help?
  • Is it OK to visit or should I stay away?
  • Should I talk about cancer or shut up about it?
  • Should I talk about other things or will that make me seem selfish?

You might find it frustrating, especially if you’re feeling crappy and crabby because of your treatment. But often all it needs is for you to be straight with people and let them know they don’t need to walk on eggshells.

You might want to:

  • Ask people to keep calling and texting
  • Explain you sometimes might take a while to reply
  • Make sure you contact them too
  • Let your friends know what they can do to help
  • Explain it’s OK for people to ask questions.

Sometimes friendships can drift apart, but your friends can also be a real help. Even if you can’t always go out and do the things you normally do together, seeing your friends when you feel up to it can give your mind a rest from just thinking cancer, cancer, cancer…

And it’s always good to have someone you can moan to when people are doing your head in!

Jake Adams

Parents and carers

If you get cancer as a teenager or in your early twenties, you might suddenly find yourself spending a lot more time with your parent or carer – just when you were expecting to spend a lot less time with them. Losing that independence can be tough for everyone.

You might feel frustrated or smothered, or embarrassed or worried about making your parent or carer worry. They might feel shocked or scared or distracted or confused – or worried about making you worry. That’s a lot of emotional baggage you’re all carrying around.

Keeping those emotions hidden doesn’t tend to help. Bottle things up and you usually end up feeling lonely or ready to explode. Or both.

So maybe try to talk to them calmly about what you’d like. You might ask:

  • To go to appointments by yourself (or with them)
  • To be involved in decisions about your treatment
  • To keep doing the things you’ve always enjoyed
  • To know they’re always a phone call away, rather than with you the whole time
  • To be left alone when you need space

It’s not always an easy conversation, but your parent or carer will probably appreciate it too. You’re all trying to figure your way through this, and talking about it honestly usually helps.

Awkward conversation?

If you’re from a family that doesn’t do conversations about emotions, you might find it helps to write in one of the cards at the back of our book Honest answers, sound advice: A Young Person’s Guide to Cancer. Leave the postcard somewhere your parent or carer will find it. They’ll get how you feel without you having to squirm and try and find the right words.

A lot of families find it helps to get support from someone outside the family. Psychologists, counsellors and your care team at the hospital know a lot about the impact of cancer. They can help the whole family talk honestly about how you feel. You’re all trying to find your way through this, and talking about it honestly usually makes you feel a lot better.

Brothers and sisters

Brothers and sisters. The things they do that make you laugh - and the things that annoy you - will probably still make you laugh, and annoy you. ​But some things might change.

You might get a lot closer as you deal with things together. You might find your brothers and sisters suddenly get really overprotective – so you end up with three (or four or five) parents, instead of two. You might find they do the opposite – ignoring you or not wanting to visit you in hospital. Or maybe you’ve had to spend more time back in the family home and suddenly you both have to share that bedroom again.

Whatever happens, remember that their emotions will be all over the place too – and if they’re acting weirdly, that’s probably the reason. They might be:

  • Scared – No matter how tough they pretend to be, they’ll be worried about you.
  • Angry – They might feel left out or annoyed because they have to do more chores (and they might be angry at themselves for feeling like that).
  • Jealous – It probably sounds weird to you, but you’re getting a lot of attention – and they may not be.
  • Guilty – When they’re out having fun, don’t be surprised if they’re feeling bad because you can’t do the same.
  • Lonely – They might be missing you. Or their friends might be drifting away because they don’t know how to react.
  • Worried this is their fault – They might think they’ve done something to cause your cancer. But they need to know: it’s not their fault, just like it isn’t yours.

It can be a struggle, but it is worth trying to keep in mind how people might be feeling. Talking honestly about what you’re going through is a good idea too, and you can always text or email if you find it hard to open up in person.

And try to let your brothers and sisters know when they’re helping you out – it’ll make them feel good and give them a better idea of what you’d like them to do.

Boyfriends and girlfriends

Dealing with boyfriends and girlfriends can be a minefield at the best of times. Throw cancer into the mix and things often get even more complicated.

It can bring you together, helping you realise just how much you mean to each other. But it can also push you apart, as you struggle to communicate like you used to about what you’re feeling and what’s going on. It throws up a whole load of new situations, too – like how you respond if one of you is feeling glass-half-full when the other one is feeling glass-half-empty. It’s not easy.

Whatever happens, remember you’re both reacting to a really tough situation – and you’re both probably feeling a lot of the same emotions. It’s never easy, but sharing what you’re going through – and trying not to criticise or blame each other – can stop you drifting apart.

You might feel like you’re a burden or like your partner didn’t sign up to this. Your partner might really want to support you but not know how. Stuff like that doesn’t come out easily unless you talk about it.

So while it can be hard – and exhausting – try to be honest. Do normal things together when you can, too. Talk about all the stupid stuff you’ve always talked about. And remember that cancer is one big curveball – and that everyone is usually better off if you let each other know what’s really going on inside.

Our free book Honest answers, sound advice: A young person’s guide to cancer has more about honest communication in relationships old and new.