Impact on family and friends

Sunday 1 April, 2018

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On this page: When others don't understand | Coping with your children's needs | Key points


After treatment is over, your family and friends may also need time to adjust. Research shows that carers can also have high levels of distress, even when treatment has finished.

Your cancer diagnosis may make people around you question their own priorities and goals. And, like you, they may be concerned about the cancer coming back. Let your family and friends know that you understand it is hard for them as well. You may want to tell them how much you appreciate all they have already done to help you, and let them know if you still need their support.

People close to you can have a range of reactions when your cancer treatment ends. They may feel:

  • relieved that you're okay
  • convinced that everything will go straight back to normal for you
  • happy to focus on others and themselves again
  • exhausted
  • confused, especially if your relationship has changed
  • upset that they are not in regular contact with the health care team
  • pleased that cancer no longer dominates conversations
  • worried about what the future holds.

Encourage your family and friends to seek support. They can call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or Carers Australia on 1800 242 636.

"People usually don't mean to make things worse. Their reactions are likely to come from their own difficulties in handling feelings such as fear and anxiety." – Dani

When others don't understand

When treatment finishes, your family and friends may expect you to act the same as you did before the cancer. If your outlook and priorities have changed, people close to you may be confused, disappointed, worried or frustrated.

Friends and family may say things like "but you look fine", "your treatment has finished now" and "the cancer has gone, hasn't it?" They may have difficulty accepting that you may still need support or that some symptoms, such as tiredness or memory problems, can persist for long periods of time. Other effects from treatment may never go away.

It's natural for family and friends to want the distress and disruption of cancer to be behind you. They care about you and want you to be well. However, if you find their reactions difficult to handle, you might like to talk to them about how you're feeling. It may help to tell them that your recovery is ongoing, and that you need time to adjust and think about what you've been through. It may be useful to ask family and friends to read this section.

Will my family inherit my cancer?

If you've had cancer, it doesn't necessarily mean that your children will get it too. If you are concerned the cancer is inherited, talk to your doctor about any risk factors and whether your family needs regular screening. Your doctor may refer you to a family cancer clinic or to a genetic counselling service.

Coping with children's needs

Like many adults, children may struggle with the way family life changes after a cancer diagnosis. They may worry about the future or find it difficult to understand why life can't go back to the way it was before the cancer.

Talking to children about cancer can be difficult. Children's reactions and needs will vary depending on their age. However, discussions that are handled sensitively and honestly can be reassuring for young people.

Communicating with children

  • Try to be as open and honest as possible.
  • Acknowledge the impact of cancer on your family. This is particularly important for teenagers. To find out about support to help teenagers cope with life after cancer, visit canteen.org.au.
  • Depending on the age and understanding of the children, talk to them about your fears, e.g. anxiety before a followup visit. This may encourage children to talk about their own fears.
  • Reassure your children that regular check-ups will help monitor the cancer.
  • Be open about how you feel, so the children understand if you're not bouncing back.
  • Spend time together doing something they enjoy.
  • Explain any changes made to your family's lifestyle, and let your children know if they are going to be permanent.
  • Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or see Talking to Kids About Cancer.

Key points

  • Family and friends also need time to adjust after your treatment is over.
  • Your family and friends may have many mixed emotions of their own: relief, exhaustion, confusion and worry. Outwardly, they may have a range of different reactions to you.
  • Some survivors find their family doesn't understand that they need time to adjust to emotional and physical changes they may be experiencing at the end of treatment.
  • Acknowledge the support that family and friends have already provided. Let them know if you still need help.
  • Encourage your family and friends to seek support. Cancer Council has a range of support services for family and friends. Call 13 11 20.
  • If you or your family are worried that the cancer is inherited, talk to your GP or oncologist. You may be referred to a family cancer clinic or a genetic counselling service.
  • Children may find it especially hard to understand how you have changed and why things can't go back to the way they used to be.
  • Talking to children at their level, and being as open and honest as possible may help.
  • For support helping your children cope with cancer, talk to your treatment team or visit canteen.org.au.

Reviewed by: Dr Haryana Dhillon, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Medical Psychology & Evidence-based Decision-making, School of Psychology, University of Sydney, NSW; Polly Baldwin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Jessica Barbon, Dietitian, Southern Adelaide Health Network, SA; Dr Anna Burger, Liaison Psychiatrist and Senior Staff Specialist, Psycho-oncology Clinic, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, ACT; Elizabeth Dillon, Social Worker, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Prof Paul Glare, Chair in Pain Medicine and Director, Pain Management Research Institute, University of Sydney, NSW; Nicole Kinnane, Nurse Coordinator, Gynaecology Services, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Amanda Piper, Manager, Australian Cancer Survivorship Centre, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Kyle Smith, Exercise Medicine Research Institute, Edith Cowan University, WA; Aaron Tan, Consumer; Dr Kate Webber, Medical Oncologist and Research Director, National Centre for Cancer Survivorship, NSW.

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