Family & Friends

Learning that you have cancer can be just as scary for family and friends as it is for you. Loved ones can feel anxious, helpless, afraid, or even angry, and they might not know what to say. People express their emotions in different ways. Some are comfortable talking about their feelings, while others might choose to say nothing for fear of not saying the right thing.

A good support system of loved ones can be very helpful when you’re dealing with cancer.

Talking About Your Diagnosis

Follow these tips to help you talk about your cancer diagnosis with your family, friends, and caregivers.

Be Prepared

  • Decide and set limits on how much you want to share.
  • Think about topics that might be too sensitive for you to talk about yet.
  • Make a list of people you want to talk to in person.
  • Make a second list of people who a family member or friend can contact with the news.
  • Let the people you’re closest to know how you’re doing.
  • Find a support group or mental health counselor if you need help talking about your cancer.
  • Prepare yourself for some conversations to be difficult, such as someone telling you to cheer up, asking too many questions, or bringing up cancer when you don’t want to talk about it.
  • Think through how you want to handle challenging questions in advance.

Ask for Help

  • Know that your loved ones are ready to do things for you and want to support you.
  • Turn to people who are good at being supportive. 
  • Be as specific as possible about the kinds of help you need.

Communication After Treatment Ends

For most cancer patients, recovery will take much longer than the treatment. Survivors and their families often are not prepared for this, which can lead to disappointment, worry, and frustration for everyone. Follow these tips to help set expectations for yourself, your family, and your friends:

Be Prepared

  • Understand that you might still need to depend on others after your treatment.
  • Do not expect to be able to do everything you did before your cancer, at least not for a while.
  • Recognize that it will take time for you to find your “new normal.”
  • Be aware that you might feel like you expect more from your family than you receive.

Ask for Help

  • Consider getting help from someone to assist you and your family in adjusting.
  • Join a peer group to talk to others who are going through similar experiences.
  • Consider asking your doctor or a social worker to refer you to a counselor.

Talking to Children

Young children see more than you might think. If you don’t feel well, are away at doctor appointments, and spend less time with them, they will see that something is wrong. Kids as young as 18 months old are aware of what is going on around them, even if they don’t understand it. Let your kids know what you are going through so they are not left to imagine the worst. Also, give them time to talk about the cancer and its effect on you and their lives throughout your cancer care.

When a Family Member Is Diagnosed with Cancer

Although it is natural to want to protect your children and spare them worry, many experts believe it is important to let them know about your cancer diagnosis in terms they understand. If you decide to tell them, give your kids time to ask questions and express their feelings. Here are some things you should stress when you talk with your children:

  • Nothing they or anyone else did caused you to get cancer.
  • Cancer does not spread like a cold, so hugging and kissing are safe.
  • We will work together as a family to get through it.

Find suggestions on how to:

  • Tell your children that a parent has cancer.
  • Choose the right words to discuss cancer.
  • Handle if your children get upset at the news.
  • Respond if your children ask if a parent might die.
  • Reassure your children that things will be okay.
  • Determine if your children might need extra support.

When a Family Member Is in Treatment

Explaining your cancer treatment to children can be especially hard. Consider their ages and personalities, as well as your knowledge of the treatment, as you decide how much to tell them.

Find suggestions on how to:

  • Talk to your children about your cancer treatment.
  • Explain to your children how your family will handle the changes.
  • Determine if your children might be acting out in response to your starting treatment.
  • Involve relatives and friends in supporting your children during your treatment.


When a Family Member’s Cancer Comes Back

Perhaps even harder than telling your children that you have cancer is letting them know that your cancer is growing or has come back after treatment.

Find suggestions on how to:

  • Deal with being overwhelmed yourself.
  • Talk to your children about your cancer coming back.
  • Learn strategies to help your children cope with your cancer coming back.
  • Address your children’s spirituality or religious faith in light of your advancing cancer.
  • Discuss your children’s greatest worries as your illness progresses.

Professional Help for Children When a Family Member Has Cancer

Reaching out to a professional is a common way to help both children and adults come to grips with a cancer diagnosis in the family. Resources include group support, mental health counseling, and other services. Learn what resources are available to you.

Find considerations on how to:

  • Choose between individual and family counseling.
  • Decide on whether a support group could help.
  • Look for particular qualities in a cancer counselor.
  • Determine if your insurance will cover counseling services.

Learn More About Talking to Family & Friends

The National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society have additional resources to help you, including telling others about your cancertalking to children about your cancer, and books for children from the ACS Bookstore.

Support for: 
Cancer Survivors