Understanding what someone with cancer may be facing

Your partner, relative or friend may be worried about many different aspects of cancer. By understanding what they are facing, you’ll help them feel supported and less alone.

While cancer is now often treated effectively, a lot of people worry about dying. Give them the opportunity to talk about this. You can show support by simply listening. Dealing with uncertainty about the future can often make people feel out of control. Try helping your loved one to focus on the things they can control – from small daily activities to bigger decisions about treatment.

Your partner, relative or friend may have unfamiliar medical terms to learn, or be experiencing new physical symptoms or side effects. Talking can be a good way to come to terms with any changes in body image, such as weight or hair loss. If they are struggling to understand or talk about distressing symptoms, you could help them get the information they need or speak to medical staff on their behalf.

Being faced with a serious illness

To help you encourage your relative or friend to talk, it’s important to try to understand what they may be facing and the fears they may have. There are many different aspects of their illness that may cause fear.

When faced with a serious illness, it’s normal for people to be shocked and confused. This may be followed by feelings such as fear, sadness, anger, bitterness, guilt or even shame. If the illness causes symptoms such as tiredness or pain, a person may find it harder to go about their everyday life. They may also feel more emotional.

A fear of dying from cancer

Even though many people with cancer can now be cured, your loved one may have a fear of dying. This fear may be like a shadow hanging over them – always there but never talked about.

Even when people are cured, they often still worry that the cancer may come back. This fear may fade over time. However, it’s important to allow your loved one a chance to talk about it. By simply listening, you can be a support to them.

Uncertainty about the future

We all like to know what’s going to happen to us. It helps us feel secure about our future. Having this feeling of certainty is a basic human need - we all like to feel in control. People with cancer often feel that this has been taken away from them. Their future may feel very uncertain, and they may not know what is going to happen to them. They may talk about feeling out of control because they’re going through a very unpleasant situation.

You can help your relative or friend by simply acknowledging how difficult it must be to face this uncertainty. You could also help them by looking at some of the things they still can control. These may be small things, such as when to go out for a walk, what to have for a meal or what to watch on television. Or it may be a big decision, such as whether to have chemotherapy or to ask for a second opinion about treatment.

Unfamiliar medical language

A person with cancer may sometimes feel foolish because they don’t know exactly what’s going to happen to them. They may also feel silly if they don’t understand the medical terms used by the doctors or nurses. Although they may avoid asking for explanations because their doctor or nurse appears to be very busy, it’s the duty of the medical team to clearly explain things. If the doctor or nurse was rushed on the day, this could have affected how clearly they said things. You can support your relative or friend by helping them ask questions to get the answers they need.

If, after the doctors or nurses have explained things, your relative or friend still doesn’t understand, they can contact Macmillan Cancer Support. Our cancer support specialists on freephone 0808 808 00 00 are able to give information to help people understand more about their specific situation.

Our section on healthcare staff may also be useful.

Physical symptoms of cancer

Physical symptoms such as pain, sickness or breathlessness may also cause distress. It’s important to let the doctors or nurses know about these symptoms because there are often effective ways of relieving them. If your relative or friend is afraid to talk about their symptoms or feels they should put up with them, you can act as an advocate and speak on their behalf, with their permission, to the medical staff.

Visible signs of cancer or treatment

It can be a shock if you visit someone in hospital and find them looking unwell. Seeing them attached to various pieces of medical equipment can be distressing. Remember to keep your attention on your relative or friend. They’re likely to notice if you stare at some piece of medical equipment or if you look away because you find it difficult to look at dressings, drips or other tubes. If seeing medical equipment, such as drips or tubes, is likely to make you anxious, it may help to ask the hospital staff what to expect before you visit.

Hair loss is a common side effect of cancer treatment. It can be a big concern for some people. If your relative or friend is likely to lose their hair because of treatment, they may want to talk about how they feel and what to do. You can support them in their decision to wear a wig, scarf, bandana, hat or even nothing at all. If they want help choosing one of these, you can help with this too.

There may be other changes to the way someone looks. For example, a person may lose a lot of weight during treatment, or have scars following surgery. They may need help coming to terms with a change in their body image. Talking to someone they trust is a good way to do this. We have more information about coping with changes in body image.

Feeling isolated

When a person is ill they may feel cut off from the rest of society and their usual friends. This may be because family and friends feel awkward about not knowing what to say or do, so they find it difficult to visit or get in touch. You can help your loved one feel cared for and supported by contacting them, whether through a visit, phone call, card, letter or email. You may want to encourage other family members and friends to do the same.

All these fears and concerns are normal and natural, and it can really help to have someone to talk to about them. Just being there and listening can be so important to your relative or friend.

Back to If someone has cancer

Talking and listening

Talking and listening can help your loved one make sense of difficult experiences.

How to talk

If your friend or relative has cancer, talking openly will help you understand their experience and build mutual trust.

Looking after yourself

Supporting a person with cancer can be both rewarding and demanding. Make sure you have the support you need.