Supporting a family member or a friend with cancer

When someone in your family has cancer, you might find it hard to cope. Talking to each other about it can help you all cope.

Your feelings

When someone has cancer, it can affect the whole family. All families are different, and each family responds differently when someone is diagnosed with cancer.

Although all families deal with stress or tension at times, a cancer diagnosis may test a family in new ways. You may have many different feelings, including shock, grief, anger and anxiety. As families or couples come to terms with a diagnosis, it is common to feel upset. There may be arguments. It is important to talk about your worries and anxieties with each other. Do not be afraid to ask questions.

It is also important to be honest with each other about how you feel. Your family can provide emotional support. Talking to each other about what is happening can be an important way of helping you all cope. Not talking could cause tension.

Macmillan is also here to support you. If you want to talk, you can:

Changes in your role

When someone in your family is diagnosed with cancer, the role you have and your relationship with the person may change.

During and after treatment, the person with cancer may not have the energy to do the things they did before. You and other family members may do these tasks. Or you may have to adjust to new roles. Making changes can be tiring. It may mean you have less time for things like:

  • spending time with friends or family
  • work or school
  • hobbies.

If life is becoming very busy, it may help to write down a list of priorities. As a family, you can plan what things are most important. Try to split any tasks between family members so you can support each other.

It is common to feel you should reject offers of help from other friends and family. But do not be afraid to ask for help. It can lessen some of the burden on you. The person helping may also feel good knowing they have made a difference.

It is important for the person with cancer to have a role, too. They may want to support other family members, as well as getting support themselves. You might find using a communication plan helps to organise everyone and prevent confusion.

We have information about sharing the caring responsibilities.

If your parent has cancer

If your parent has cancer, you may find yourself looking after them for the first time. For example, you might help them wash or get dressed.

Having to care for your parent in ways you have not done before might cause lots of different emotions. You or your parent may feel:

  • anxious
  • embarrassed
  • resentful.

You and your parent could have a conversation about who does what and who makes decisions. This will help to support you both and reduce anxieties.

There may be practical solutions, too. For example, if you are helping your parent wash, they might want to wear a dressing gown. This can help them feel less exposed or embarrassed.

It can help to share responsibility for looking after your parent. This might be with siblings if you have them, or other family members. It can help to split the responsibilities clearly, so each person knows what to do.

If you need help with caring for your parent, Age UK and Citizens Advice can support you.

You might find it helpful to talk to other carers. You can use our Online Community forum to talk to other carers and share your experience of looking after someone with cancer.

You might find it helpful to talk to other carers. You can use our Online Community forum to talk to other carers and share your experience of looking after someone with cancer.

Young carers

If you are under the age of 18 and looking after someone with cancer, you are a young carer. 

It may be your:

  • mum or dad
  • brother or sister
  • aunt or uncle
  • grandparent
  • friend
  • guardian.

This can be very difficult and may affect your life in many ways. We have separate information for young carersCarers Trust also have information for young carers.

If your friend has cancer

When a friend is diagnosed with cancer, you may have many different feelings. These may continue as your friend goes through treatment. If they are a very close friend, you might find their diagnosis particularly difficult to cope with.

Supporting your friend

Your friend may have support from their family or a partner. But you can support them too. Talk to your friend and find out how you can help. Perhaps you can do practical things, such as going to appointments with them or spending time with them when family members are unable to.

Talking to your friend

Your friend might need someone to talk to. They may find it easier to talk about certain things with a friend than with their family. Or they may welcome the chance to talk about normal things. You might worry about saying the wrong thing and avoid certain topics. 

We have more information about talking with someone who has cancer. This may help you feel more confident talking with your friend.

Sharing responsibilities

Your friend may not have a family supporting them, but they may have a group of very supportive friends. This can sometimes cause issues when friends do not agree on what needs to be done and who will do it. If this happens, it might help for you all to sit down and talk with the person with cancer. 

You can talk about the situation and ask them what they want. Even if you have difficulties, you might find you all appreciate each other more and become better friends.

If you are your friend's main carer

If your friend does not have anyone else to help them, you may feel responsible for their care. It is not only partners or family members who become carers. If you provide a lot of support to someone with cancer, you may be a carer. This means you could get some support to help you do your caring role. 

If your friend starts to need more help, you might feel pressured to do more for them. You do not have to do anything you do not feel comfortable with. Local authorities and health and social care trusts are responsible for arranging services that people need. 

We have more information about the help that is available for carers.

If you are a friend of someone with cancer, we are here for you. Call us on 0808 808 0000 for information or support.

How you can help with treatment decisions

The person with cancer may want to talk to you about their treatment options. Their doctor may have spoken to them about different options.

Talking to them about these choices can help you understand their thoughts and feelings. But any decisions about treatment will be theirs.

Having information may make you or the person with cancer feel more in control. It is important to remember that each of you might need a different amount of information. Some people may want to:

  • know as much as possible about the cancer and treatment
  • only want to know enough to make decisions about treatment and how to cope with it
  • choose not to know very much at all.

It can be useful to talk about how you can manage this. It is best to let your family member, friend or partner find out information when they are ready.

The best source of information about cancer treatment for the person with cancer is their healthcare team. You can also get information:

Many hospitals have information centres. These provide face-to-face information and free booklets and leaflets.

Going to appointments is a good way for you to know what is happening. Before you go, ask the person with cancer how much they want you to be involved. They may be happy for you to ask questions, but it is best to check in advance.

Doctors and nurses cannot give you any information without permission from the person with cancer. The person with cancer can tell their doctor if they are happy for treatment information to be shared with named people. The doctor can then record this in their case notes. If the person with cancer is your partner, you do not have to be married or in a civil partnership to do this.

Having information about treatments may help you cope and support them better. If you think it would help, talk to the person with cancer. It may also be helpful for them, because:

  • you could help them remember what the doctor said
  • they could talk to you when making decisions
  • you would know about possible treatment side effects
  • with their permission, you could share information with family and friends.

If you disagree with a treatment decision

Sometimes you may not agree with your family member, friend or partner about treatment decisions. This can be hard for both of you. If this happens, you may find it useful to talk to the cancer doctor or specialist nurse together. This may help both of you to understand all the options.

The person with cancer has the right to make their own choices. Try to accept this and support their decision. Sometimes this can be difficult. It may help to talk about your feelings with someone else. Your GP or the person with cancer’s specialist nurse may be able to arrange for you to see a counsellor.

About our information

This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer.

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our cancer and emotions information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Supporting adult carers. NICE guideline [NG150]. Published 22 January 2020. Available from [accessed Jan 2023].


    Zeng Q, Ling D, Chen W, et al. Family Caregivers’ Experiences of Caring for Patients with Head and Neck Cancer. A systematic Review and Metasynthesis of Qualitative Studies. Cancer Nursing. 2023; 46,14-28. Available from [accessed Jan 2023].

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 December 2023
Next review: 01 December 2026
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.

The language we use

We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

We want our information to be as clear as possible. To do this, we try to:

  • use plain English
  • explain medical words
  • use short sentences
  • use illustrations to explain text
  • structure the information clearly
  • make sure important points are clear.

We use gender-inclusive language and talk to our readers as ‘you’ so that everyone feels included. Where clinically necessary we use the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ or ‘male’ and ‘female’. For example, we do so when talking about parts of the body or mentioning statistics or research about who is affected.

You can read more about how we produce our information here.