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4 Tips to Manage Relationships After a Cancer Diagnosis

Getty Images / Willie B. Thomas

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 most dramatically affects is your relationships. Cancer can make or break relationships – whether with friends, family or partners.

You always hope your relationships will hold strong under the strain of a life-threatening diagnosis. Of course your friends will be there for you! Obviously your partner will stick around. Surely your family will be supportive?

But the reality isn’t that straightforward.

In fact, according to research carried out by War on Cancer, a social networking app for cancer patients, 65% of respondents said that friends or relatives had disappeared or cut contact after their diagnosis.

What you can do to keep relationships intact

Not so long ago, I hosted a panel (on Zoom, because #socialdistancing) around cancer and friendship to unpick some of the biggest issues that arise round this topic. We talked about everything from the friend that ghosts you, to the friend who keeps recommending turmeric and yoga as a solution to your problems.

It left me thinking about what advice I’d give to a newly diagnosed patient and to their loved ones about the best ways to maintain relationships, particularly friendships, at a time when they are crucial. Here are a few tips that I’ve picked up along my journey with cancer:

1. Be honest about the way you’re feeling

For both parties, communication is absolutely key. For the patient, it’s essential to talk to your friends and loved ones about what you want and what you need. It’s also crucial to remember that these things might change from day to day, and remember that that’s alright.

Going through cancer treatment is traumatic and every patient I know (and there are a lot now!) has said that what they needed when they were in treatment changed from one day to another. One day they’d laugh at a joke that had made them cry just two days earlier.

It’s just about being honest with your loved ones about how you’re feeling and explicitly telling them what you need from them. If they’re suggesting kale and yoga might help with the side effects of chemo when even the thought of doing child’s pose makes you feel nauseous right now, let them know.

2. Talk to people who ‘get’ it

It’s also hugely beneficial to find people who are in a similar situation to you. Peer support is the perfect antidote to the isolation that can sometimes come with a cancer diagnosis, especially if you’re younger.

It can be pretty alienating sitting in a room and finding you’re the youngest person there by at least 15 years. Talking to people who just ‘get’ what you’re experiencing can hugely reduce loneliness and provide a really valuable source of comfort. There are so many organizations out there that can help facilitate that – whether for general cancer concerns, or 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 who has been diagnosed, remember forgiveness is key. It’s important to remember that sometimes you’re going to get things wrong. Your friend might lash out sometimes, but forgiving yourself for making mistakes, and them for acting out of character, is the only way to get through loving someone who has a cancer diagnosis.

One of the things that came up on the panel I hosted was that it’s better to try something and maybe stumble a bit than it is to not try at all and disappear off the face of the earth. Rather say the wrong thing, than nothing at all.

It’s also important to take the time to ‘read the room’ and figure out what your friend is trying tell you, even if they’re not clear about it.

Taking charge can sometimes be helpful too. Especially in the early days of diagnosis, your loved one will be so thrown that they’ll have trouble remembering their own name, not to mention that many tasks of daily life. So if you can deliver food packages, pop round to take care of the dishes, organize something for the days when they’re feeling well, or even just make a conscious effort to text them every day to chat about anything other than cancer, it’s going to make a huge difference to their overall wellbeing.

The truth is, navigating relationships is hard at the best of times, let alone when there’s a life-threatening illness thrown into the mix. When I was ill in 2015 and 2016, the friends I valued most were those who showed up for me again and again and again in the best way they knew how.

I appreciated that sometimes people got it wrong, that they said the wrong thing or that they felt uncomfortable with the situation because of their own personal things and had to take a step back.

4. Ultimately, just be kind

One of the things I always say when I’m thinking about relationships and cancer is that I had no idea how to handle the situation I was in, so how could I expect anyone else to know how to handle the situation? We were all learning as we were going on, so for me (as is often the case), compassion was essential. For myself and for others.

It’s compassion that makes the difference between a relationship that holds up beyond cancer and one that doesn’t. So if you’re facing a situation where a loved one is sick or if you’re undergoing treatment yourself, be kind, always.

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