Family, Friends, and Relationships

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 02/2018

Watch the Moving Forward video on Family and Friends, adapted from this content.

A cancer diagnosis affects everyone in your family: your partner, your parents, your siblings, and your children. It also affects your friends. How these relationships change depends on each person’s coping style.

When managing your relationships during this time, do not be afraid to ask your family and friends for help. This helps the people who care for you feel that they are providing you with valuable support.

What your spouse or partner may be experiencing

Because your partner is a primary source of support, a cancer diagnosis may affect this relationship more than others. Young adults typically do not expect a partner to face a life-threatening illness at such a young age. A cancer diagnosis may be overwhelming for your partner. Both individuals may experience some of the following feelings:

The effects of cancer vary from couple to couple. Most couples will experience changes in many aspects of their relationship. These can include changes in roles and responsibilities, sexuality, intimacy, parenting, and plans for the future.

For many couples, facing the challenges of cancer together strengthens their relationship. Uncertainty about the future can reinforce a couple's love and commitment. It may allow them to reevaluate their priorities and reinforce the importance of their partnership. In other situations, a cancer diagnosis can strain the relationship. For these reasons, it is important for you and your partner to talk about your concerns and challenges with each other. It may also help to talk with a counselor if cancer is causing stress in your relationship.

How your parents may react

You may feel that your parents become overprotective or try to take charge, even if you have not lived with them for many years. They may want to talk to you frequently, ask a lot of questions, or give unsolicited advice. It is natural for your parents to want to protect you and take care of you because that was their role for many years. Your parents are also dealing with their own emotions surrounding your cancer diagnosis, as well as those of your siblings and other family members.

  • Talking with your parents. Although it may be difficult, try to talk openly with your parents about what you are feeling and thinking. Some young adults do not want to share their worries and fears with their parents because they feel guilty about potentially upsetting them. However, sharing your emotions and being clear about what you need allows you and your parents to work together to resolve problems and support each other.

  • How your parents can help. As a young adult, you are trying to become independent and may not feel comfortable relying on your parents. Be honest about your need for independence as you make your own decisions. But do not be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Your parents likely have more experience than you do in some situations, such as dealing with doctors and insurance companies.

  • Living arrangement options. Although some young adults live at home with their parents, many live in their own home or apartment. If you do not have a spouse, partner, or close friend who can help you at home, there may be times during your treatment when living alone becomes difficult. Consider asking a parent or another close family member to move in temporarily to help you. Some young adults choose to move back into their parents’ home for a while. Moving in with your parents or another family member may feel like you are giving up your independence or like you are unable to take care of yourself. However, by making that move, you are taking initiative to ensure that your physical, emotional, practical, and financial needs are met, and you are giving your family a role in your care.

How your siblings may react

Your siblings’ responses to cancer will depend on several factors:

  • How close you are

  • Their ages, maturity levels, and personalities

  • How far away they live

  • Their coping styles

  • The amount of support you have from others

Younger brothers and sisters who are children or teenagers will likely react differently than older siblings. A brother or sister who is close in age to you will more easily relate to the stresses, fears, and concerns that you experience as a young adult with cancer.

Talking with your siblings. Talking with your siblings about your cancer diagnosis can help you support each other. In fact, sharing the cancer experience with your brothers and sisters often strengthens the relationships. But you or your siblings may not know what to say, or they may even fear talking with you about cancer, so you may need to guide the conversation.

How your siblings can help. Regardless of their ages, your brothers and sisters often want to help, and they can play an important role in supporting you. Here are some practical ways they can help:

  • Keep you company on trips to the hospital or clinic

  • Spend time doing fun things with you—things that take your mind off of cancer

  • Visit you at home when you do not feel well enough to go out

  • Talk, reminisce, and laugh about things other than cancer

  • Help you with cooking, laundry, grocery shopping, and other household tasks

  • Communicate news about your treatment and recovery with other family members

Try to avoid blaming yourself for any problems your brothers and sisters have coping. And if they seem overwhelmed, encourage them to seek counseling. This can help them learn healthy ways to respond to their emotions.

How your friends may act

Often, young adults may have little or no experience with a life-threatening illness such as cancer and may not know how to act around you. A cancer diagnosis may also frighten some of your friends because it is a reminder that cancer can happen to anyone, even a young adult.

It may be necessary for you to put your friends at ease and talk about your cancer diagnosis. Start by deciding what you want your friends to know. You may consider sharing more information with close friends and less information with acquaintances. Remember that you are in charge of what you tell people. You do not have to tell anyone until you are ready, and you do not have to say more than you want to.

Here are some things to keep in mind after you tell your friends about your cancer:

  • If your friends are avoiding you, they may not know what to say and may worry about saying the wrong thing.

  • If they avoid mentioning your cancer, they may be afraid of upsetting you.

  • If they are not calling you, it may be because they think you will not feel like talking.

  • If they are not inviting you to be a part of activities, they may think you will not be able to go or they may feel guilty about having fun when you are sick.

  • If they are not visiting you, they may think you do not want visitors or worry about any potentially awkward moments during the visit.

Despite your efforts, some friendships will fade. It may be difficult for some people to understand your experiences with cancer. It is important to focus on friends who are able to support and listen to you. Talking with other young adults who share your experiences can be extremely helpful. Consider joining a support group for young adults with cancer.

Related Resources

Family Life

Supporting and Empowering Young Adults With Cancer