What your relative or friend 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. If they want 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 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.

They may also have stopped doing some of the things they enjoy. If they have stopped working or doing social activities, they may feel isolated. You could think together about things that they still want, and are able, to do.

Uncertainty

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, but people with cancer often feel that this has been taken away from them. Their future may feel uncertain and they may not know what is going to happen to them. They may even talk about feeling out of control because they’re going through an 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 can still 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 TV. Or it may be a big decision, such as whether to have chemotherapy or to ask for a second opinion about treatment.


The threat of death

Although many people with cancer can be cured, your loved one may have a fear of dying. This fear may always be there in the background 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. But it’s important to allow your loved one a chance to talk about it. By simply listening, you can be a support to them.


Physical effects of cancer

Tiredness

Tiredness is very common in people with cancer, especially during treatment. It can be constant or it may vary depending on what treatment someone is having. Tiredness can mean someone feels low in mood or more irritable than usual. It can also affect a person's concentration and memory.

Eating problems

Cancer treatment can sometimes cause people to:

  • feel or be sick
  • have a change in appetite
  • have changes to their sense of taste, making some foods taste unpleasant or all foods taste the same.


Changes in appearance

Cancer treatment can cause changes in appearance. These may be temporary or permanent.

Possible changes include:

  • hair loss
  • putting on weight or losing weight
  • scars from surgery
  • skin changes, such as rashes, dry skin, spots or redness.

Changes in our appearance can make us feel vulnerable and self-conscious. Your relative or friend may worry about other people’s reactions to how they look, or the effect it may have on their relationships.

Most people need time to get used to body changes. Support from family and friends can help. Remember, they are the same person you have always known. If they want to, let them talk to you about their feelings.

We have more information about coping with changes in body image.


Changes to their role

During cancer treatment, many people stop doing the things that they used to enjoy or do well. They may have stopped work, or stopped doing activities that involved contact with other people. These activities can reassure us that we are competent, needed, talented or funny. They remind us that other people value our skills, knowledge and humour.

Participating in these activities can also give us a sense of self-worth. This is also known as self-esteem. Having positive self-esteem is about having confidence and respect for yourself. Not being able to take part in these activities can affect a person's self-worth and how they think about themselves.

Remember that in spite of all the losses and changes that your relative or friend may have to cope with, they are still the same person inside. Their skills and qualities are still there, even if they don’t have the same chances to use all of them as much at the moment.

It might be helpful to think together about what they still want to do and are able to do, even if it’s a small thing. Whatever they decide, it’s important to support them.

Feeling isolated

Some people can feel isolated from their friends and workmates. If family and friends feel awkward about what to say, they may not visit or get in touch. You can help by keeping in regular contact and being a good listener. You can encourage other people to do the same.

Depending on others

Many people find it difficult thinking of themselves as someone who has cancer. They worry that because they need other people more than normal, they are being weak. But we all depend on each other throughout life, however much we may like to think of ourselves as independent.

Back to If someone has cancer

Keeping in touch

There are lots of ways you can keep in touch with your loved one.

How to be a good listener

Listening carefully to your relative or friend will give them support and help you understand their needs better.

Things to avoid saying

Understanding things that might be unhelpful to say can make you more confident about talking with someone who has cancer.

Looking after yourself

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