Cancer survivors: Reconnecting with loved ones after treatment

Friends and family provide an important circle of support for cancer survivors. Learn how to nurture relationships so that you can avoid common problems.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Your friends and family love you and are worried about you — but they sometimes have strange ways of showing it. Some people withdraw and avoid talking to you. Others smother you and treat you like a child.

Many cancer survivors find that one barrier to a smooth transition out of cancer treatment is the reaction they get from friends and family. One way for cancer survivors to prepare for relationship difficulties is to expect these problems and plan accordingly.

Common relationship issues for cancer survivors

Navigating relationships can be a challenge for cancer survivors transitioning to life after treatment. You may recognize some of these common scenarios:

  • Changing responsibilities. During treatment, you might not have been able to handle all the household duties you had performed before your cancer diagnosis.

    For instance, maybe you were in charge of grocery shopping and cooking dinner. If cancer treatment tired you out and you were unable to continue those tasks, your partner or another family member might have filled in for you.

    Now that your cancer treatment is over, that person might be expecting you to resume those responsibilities — but you might not feel up to it yet. This can be frustrating for your family member, and you might feel pressured to do more than you can handle.

  • Changing roles. If you were a take-charge kind of person before cancer, you may find that during treatment your partner had to take over that role. Deciding when and how to switch back can be confusing and awkward.
  • Withdrawing from you. You may find that some friends and family members are avoiding you. It could be subtle or overt, such as when someone stops returning your phone calls. Either way, it hurts.

    People withdraw for a number of reasons. The person might not know what to say or is worried about saying the wrong thing. He or she might not know how to offer you support. Others don’t know how to react.

  • Giving you too much attention. Rather than feeling lonely, you might find yourself being smothered with good intentions. Friends or family might baby you and insist on doing things for you when no assistance is needed. They love you and want to help, but in fact they’re too helpful.
  • Being nosy. Some people ask a lot of questions — perhaps more than you’re comfortable answering.
  • Confusing expectations. If your recovery isn’t going as well as you’d hoped, you might be frustrated. You might expect everything to go back to normal right away, but that isn’t happening. Try not to take your frustrations out on the people around you. If you do, you could push them away.

Whether you encounter problems with your relationships often depends on the strength of the relationships beforehand. Relationships that were already strained tend to continue that way after cancer, sometimes completely falling apart. Strong relationships can become even stronger through the cancer experience.

What you can do to nurture relationships with friends and family

Before feelings of loneliness and isolation get you down, remember that you can take steps to nurture relationships with friends and family. The first step is to acknowledge that all of these people care about you, and they each have their own way of reacting to your cancer.

Tips for repairing relationships include:

  • Start the conversation. Some people might want to ask how you’re feeling, but they don’t know what to say. Or maybe they think they’ll upset you.

    Start the conversation yourself. Let people know that you welcome their questions — or that you don’t wish to talk about your cancer at that time.

  • Accept help. Friends and family are going to ask you if there’s anything they can do to help. Plan ahead and come up with ways for people to give you some assistance, whether it’s helping around the house or just being there for you when you need to talk. Friends and family feel good when they can help.
  • Let others know what to expect of you. If you aren’t ready to assume the responsibilities you had around the house before your cancer diagnosis, don’t feel pressured to take up those duties too soon. But tell your family what to expect so that they aren’t left wondering.

    When you’re ready to take up your prior duties, let your family know that these tasks can help you feel more normal and aid in your recovery.

  • Keep the friendships that matter. Some people may withdraw from you, and you’ll have to let them go. Try not to expend a lot of emotional energy trying to patch up relationships that may not have been strong to begin with. Invest your time and energy in the friends who are closest to you.
  • Plan what you’ll say. You’ll get questions about your cancer and your treatment. Decide how you’ll answer these questions — especially if someone asks questions you don’t feel comfortable answering.

    In some situations you might let the person know that you don’t feel comfortable answering those questions. Other times you might avoid answering an uncomfortable question by changing the subject or redirecting the conversation.

  • Be patient with others. If you find yourself becoming frustrated, remember that the people around you have good intentions. They may not know the right things to say or do, so their words and actions may seem inappropriate or critical. That awkwardness may come from unfamiliarity with the situation.
  • Stay involved when you can. Some friends or family might not invite you to do things because they assume you aren’t yet ready for social activities. Let these people know when you want to be included — or ask someone else to relay your message.
  • Seek out support groups. You’ll have times when you feel that people who haven’t had cancer can’t understand what you’re going through.

    Discuss your feelings with other cancer survivors, whether in a support group in your community or online.

    Support groups are also available for cancer survivors’ friends and family. Suggest these to the people closest to you.

  • Get professional help. Ask your doctor for a referral to a counselor or therapist for more help. He or she may have ideas on ways to better communicate with your friends and family.

It’s entirely possible that everyone in your family and in your circle of friends will be supportive throughout your recovery. But chances are that you will run into a few relationship obstacles. Think ahead about how you’ll deal with potential problems.

Oct. 23, 2020

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