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Talking about cancer with friends and family

The effects of cancer on your relationships with friends and family members vary widely, based on the closeness of each relationship. Different families have different communication and coping styles. Consider how your family reacts in a crisis and how family members have dealt with other difficult situations. This will help you plan your strategy for communicating news and asking for support.

Expect relationships to change.

Many people have little experience with life-threatening illnesses. They may not know what to say to you or how to act. For some, it may be frightening to learn that you have cancer. Others may have lost a loved one to cancer, and your diagnosis may bring up painful memories. For these reasons, some of your friends or family members may not be able to offer you the support that you expect.

Although this is painful, try to remember that their reactions may reflect their past experiences and losses and not their feelings for you. Some friends and family members may distance themselves from you, but others will surprise you with emotional and physical support throughout your illness.

Take the lead in talking.

Some friends and family members may avoid talking with you because they do not know what to say. Others may avoid talking about cancer, fearing that they will upset you. If you feel like talking about your cancer, bring up the subject with your friends and family members. Let them know that it is okay to talk about it. Reassure them that you do not expect answers and that you only want them to listen and to try to understand your feelings. It is also okay to tell people when you do not want to talk about your cancer. At times, you might prefer to talk about other things or just laugh with your friends.

Let people help you.

Friends and family are often not sure how they can help you. Sometimes their attempts at helping may be misplaced but almost always their intention is to be helpful. Sometimes you can feel overwhelmed by phone calls, visitors and advice. It may feel like you are supporting others when you and your child need the support. Be direct and detailed about your needs. Prepare a list of tasks that people can do for you. For example, ask friends or family members to do your laundry, walk the dog, or update others on your progress.  You can also just say “Knowing you are there is helpful”.

During times of greater stress, it is helpful to ask a couple of your friends or family to pass on information about how things are going with you, to the rest of your friends and family. This will not only minimise the number of people you need to talk to, but also help others to understand your situation and support you and your family. Some parents set up a group email or blog for people who want to know how things are going.

Setting boundaries.

You may find that you have a well-meaning but overbearing family member who is complicating your efforts. In this case, you or a close family member will need to set boundaries with that person. This may be difficult, but it is best to be direct and let him or her know exactly what is helpful and what is not. One way to approach this is to say, “I appreciate your involvement. But I get tired when you are here every day. The best way you can help me is by visiting on [name a specific day or time]."

Stay involved in social activities.

As much as possible, try to maintain social contact with friends and family. Your friends might assume that you do not want to be invited to social events. So let them know to keep inviting you, if that is your preference. Meanwhile, let people know about your physical limitations. Most friends and family members will be happy to plan quiet activities, such as going to the movies or fixing lunch at your house. And do not be afraid to cancel if you are physically or emotionally tired.

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