Cancer Support: Tips for Family and Friends

Your family and friends become your inner circle of support during cancer treatment.

Medically Reviewed by Paul O'Neill, MD on May 21, 2008

Medical expertise is a key part of your cancer treatment. But it won’t be enough. To get through this, you’ll also need to build a cancer support team at home with your family and friends.

Having good cancer support at home is crucial. “A cancer diagnosis adds an enormous amount of stress to a person’s life,” says Harold J. Burstein, MD, a staff oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “But people who have strong social supports -- good friends and family -- tend to cope much better.”

Here are some tips from the experts on how to get cancer support from your friends and family.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You may feel awkward about asking friends or family for help. You may not want to impose. But you need help right now. You can’t get through treatment by yourself. So summon up your courage and ask. You may be surprised at how willing people are to pitch in. In fact, they may just be waiting for you to ask.
  • Build a team. Don’t lean too much on one person. Instead, ask for help from several people. That way, you won’t feel guilty about imposing too much on one person, and no relative or friend will feel overwhelmed. When asking for cancer support, play to the strengths of individual friends and family, says Terri Ades, MS, APRN-BC, AOCN, director of cancer information at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. Ask a methodical, organized friend to help you come up with a schedule and work out the logistics of planning treatments. Ask your sister the chef to prepare dinners that you can freeze and reheat as needed. Obviously, your closest family members -- your spouse, children, or parents -- are likely to be at your side through this. But they may not always be the most helpful cancer supports, says Ades. They’re going to be frightened and upset just like you. So for some types of support, friends -- who are a little further removed -- may be more helpful.
  • Bring a partner to appointments. Obviously, a friend or family member can offer emotional support during doctor’s appointments or treatments. But he or she can also have an important practical role in cancer support. During the appointment, a partner might remember details or questions that you forget. “It’s great to have a second set of ears in these meetings,” says Jan C. Buckner, MD, chair of medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
  • Figure out what you need and ask for it. A lot of people may want to help but aren’t sure what to do. If you don’t give them guidance, they may do things that you don’t really want. So figure out what sort of cancer support you need. Do you want someone to watch the kids while you take a nap? Do you need someone to drive you to chemotherapy? Or do you just want a pal who will go to dinner and the movies -- without saying a word about your cancer? Decide what you need and then ask for it.
  • Talk to your children. “Parents want to protect their children,” says Ades, “and many don’t want to tell their kids about a cancer diagnosis.” But she says that’s the worst thing you could do. “Your kids are going to find out whether you tell them or not,” she tells WebMD. So it’s better to talk to them now so you can control how they learn about it. Obviously, you need to adjust the information depending on the age of your child: a teenager will require a lot more detail than a 4-year-old. But all children will be worried -- not only about you, but also about how their own lives will change. You need to reassure them that their needs won’t be neglected, says Ades.
  • Appoint a surrogate. No one wants to think about it, but Buckner urges patients to appoint a legal surrogate who can make decisions about your health care if you become unable to. Don’t look at this as a bad omen. “It’s just like having insurance or a will,” says Buckner. “It’s just a precaution.”

What to Do When Family and Friends Can’t Offer Cancer Support

What can you do if you don’t have a network of friends and family to rely on? Maybe you’ve relocated and your closest friends are on the other side of the country. Or perhaps you’ve become estranged from your family.

“If you know that you won’t get support from your family and friends, you need to tell your doctor up front,” says Burstein. “You will need help from someone.”

Buckner agrees. He suggests that you talk to a hospital ombudsman or social worker about your situation. See what cancer support they can offer. You could also try the American Cancer Society or other patient advocacy organizations, he says.

However, don’t give up on your friends and family too quickly. Regular phone calls from loved ones far away may still help. Even distant relatives can become key cancer supports in a crisis.

Show Sources


Terri Ades, MS, APRN-BC, AOCN, director of cancer information, American Cancer Society, Atlanta.

Jan C. Buckner, MD, chair of medical oncology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Harold J. Burstein, MD, staff oncologist, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; assistant professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston.

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