When You Have Cancer: The Importance of Relationships

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

OCTOBER 26, 2022

Cancer patient hugs their friend in support

All of us understand the importance of our relationships. We always need each other, but we need one another even more than usual when faced with a crisis. Cancer certainly qualifies as a people-needing time.

If there were a required introductory course for newly diagnosed cancer patients, it ought to be something like “Cancer Human Resources 101”. Whenever I talk with someone who is entering Cancer World, I ask about the people and connections in their lives.

I have learned never to make assumptions about whom they can rely upon for ongoing support. For example, I have known a number of married people whose spouses were the opposite of reliable and helpful. The real risk in those situations is that others may assume that the spouse is right there being helpful and may not offer what they might for a single friend.

It is always instructive to make a list, either literally or figuratively, of whom you think will be helpful through cancer. I encourage people to do this and then to put the list away and look at it a year later. Inevitably, we make some guesses that turn out not to be right. Some of the people whom we expected to be close and faithful will not be, while others may step up in a surprising and wonderful way.

Everyone has some relationships that are changed, for better or for worse, by cancer. At the far end of the experience, there will be time to consider these relationships and decide if it is worth trying to mend some that have been damaged.

As is always true, there is not a clear right or wrong answer here. It feels risky to reach out to a friend who has disappointed you and share your perspective. Even understanding that your old friend may have vanished because she was too frightened by your diagnosis or too hurt by another cancer loss in her life does not make it easy. You may decide that a particular friendship is or is not worth the risk.

Clearly one of the reasons for suggesting this list is to encourage people to think about all of their possible “human resources.” They may be found in different parts of our lives: family, friends who are nearby, friends who are geographically distant, acquaintances, neighbors, co-workers, employers, people who attend the same church or synagogue, etc.

Once the list has been made, you are faced with the next challenge: how to ask for and accept help. Many of us are much better at offering assistance than at accepting it, and our instinct may be to reject offers that actually could be helpful. Remind yourself that other people truly want to help as you move through cancer. You are being kind to them to say yes to their offer to bring dinner, drive the carpool, or do the grocery shopping. Think of this as a win/win situation; you get something you need, and they get to feel good about themselves.

Another potential hurdle is what people may say to you. Even if we assume they are speaking from a kind and caring perspective, it is often not advice you want to hear. People may ask detailed questions about your situation that you have no mandate to answer. People may suggest all kinds of cancer treatments or tell you stories about others who have been through a similar diagnosis.

People may send you links to all kinds of cancer information or bring books that purport to teach you to cure cancer with diet, supplements, or learning to better control your anger. You do not have to read any of them. You can always politely say thank you and then immediately trash the offending literature.

If someone says something that is truly outlandish, hurtful, or inappropriate, here is my best all-purpose response: Pause for a moment and then ask, questioningly (not angrily), Why did you ask me that? Why did you just say that? Inevitably, this takes the focus off you and back to them and, usually, results in some squirming and maybe even an apology.

As you consider where and how best to find the people who will most help you, here are a few questions to help expand your thinking:

  • Who is supportive of your emotional needs and can align with your hopes?
  • Where else might you look for support? 
  • Who has already offered to help? What might they be good at?
  • Which tasks or errands could best to assigned to each potential helper?
  • Who can always make you laugh? (Encourage these relationships!)
  • Are there people whom you don’t want in your life right now? This is perfectly okay; you don’t owe anyone anything at this moment.
  • Have you considered joining a support group or another cancer-related organization where you could find community?

One certainty is that you will learn more about your friends and your friendships as you move through these months. It is also certain that you will learn how to be a better friend in the future to someone else who needs you.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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