Family & Cancer

Family and cancer is not the same as friends and cancer. We can have friends of all kinds and shapes, and on a lot of levels. Friendships can come and go and it’s a relationship we choose.

Trial and Errors

Family is different in many ways. You don’t get to pick your parents or your siblings. Nature have a way of doing that for us and family ties are almost as individual as the family members can be. No family is the other alike.
So what happens with a family when one of it’s members is diagnosed with cancer?

Because families are individuals tied to each other both by choice and nature it can get rather complicated. Although family have stronger ties than most friendships, there are aspects that can be more difficult to handle because of that.

Fear and Anger

Adults in a family might not react to a cancer diagnose the way you expect them to. And if you are related to someone with a cancer diagnose, fear of losing this person is almost always the most overwhelming feeling. Furthermore, an angry family member might just be afraid of losing.
So if you feel angry and frustrated, or think that life is unfair when a close relative have to fight this kind of battle it’s most likely that you are afraid of losing them. You might even wish that someone else you know would have had cancer instead of that person you love.

That kind of wish often comes with a lot of shame almost instantly, and once the news about the diagnose have settled that wish is gone. Although a thought like that might seem very real when it happens, it’s nothing but a reflex. It doesn’t make you a horrible person, just human.


Because the health care in most countries today will focus mainly on the patient, family is a bit set aside. Waiting for test results is a big thing if you are diagnosed with cancer. The wait can be unnerving and it’s not easy to handle for those around you either. Obviously the result of any test can either be a trigger of relief or it can make the situation even worse, all depending on if it’s a negative or positive result.

A family member will most likely feel very helpless, even totally out of control. We are all aware of that control is nothing but an illusion when it comes to life. However, in any healthy family helping out is a natural thing and cancer won’t allow that. Cancer will set new rules to live by and there’s nothing you can do about it other than accept it. If you are a doctor you can do a lot more of course, but somehow I think that being a doctor and have a family member who is ill must be terrifying. Just think of all the things you would be aware of and STILL couldn’t do anything about.

If you belong to those who automatically want to step in and DO something to help, talk about it first and make sure the help is wanted. Even if the person being ill is a family member, remember that cancer can be a very private thing. It’s not easy to talk about and in the beginning there might be a lot of denial. If your help is not wanted in the beginning, allow some time to pass. Cancer is rarely painless or symptom free and sooner or later you might have to help out around the house.


People are different and while some want to be in the know, others will choose to go with the flow. When it comes to cancer most people are already well informed, but it might also mean that the wrong conclusions are being made. Cancer isn’t always a death sentence and that is important to recognise not only for someone who is diagnosed, but also for the family.

If you’re a patient and want answers all you have to do is ask your doctor. Most doctors are willing to take their time and give as many answers as you want and need. If you’re family you might not be in the same position to get the answers straight from a health professional. So who do you ask?
It can be tough to ask the person who is ill even if you are good at communicating otherwise. A cancer patient can build walls around them without being aware and they can be difficult to get past.

Searching the internet for answers can be both good and bad. Cancer is often individual and the answers you’ll find online are more than likely generalised. You might find the basic knowledge, but it’s rare they will be good enough to apply to your loved ones diagnosis. If you are close family it’s better to see a doctor together and share any concerns and questions you might have with him or her.

Behaviour and remission

Once a patient is in remission their view on things might not be the same they once were and that’s not always easy to explain. They might change their routines and have problems at work. Socially it might be difficult to plan anything because your wife/husband/partner changes their mind all of a sudden and doesn’t want to take part. They might cry for no apparent reason and be inconsolable. Erratic behaviour during remission is nothing to worry about. Mentally and emotionally it will take a while to absorb and process what happened, and it can be the same for everyone in a family.

There are times when being in remission can slip over into depression and it can happen for a lot of reasons. Changes in the physical appearance can be one reason, pain can be another. Chronic pain can be a big issue after surgery and that will almost always lead to depression. The feeling of being worthless, not be able to get back to work right away and a lot of other things can have a big effect on a person.

A person who is in remission and depressed needs professional help. There’s very little you can do as a family member other than being understanding. Cancer can be a life changing event and about a lot more than just survival. Survival is a mix of a lot of feelings and it can be hard to focus on the future during that first time during the remission.


Handling children when a parent is ill can be a challenge. Their age is of course significant for how much they understand. Don’t underestimate their ability to understand what’s going on however. Children are by nature curious and the amount of information that you share with them is up to you. But answer their questions to your best ability and always stick to the truth.

If there’s problems at school that shows up around the same time you should handle it as soon as possible. Make sure that teachers know that a family member is ill. You don’t have to tell the school everything, but it’s more fair to everyone if they know. The school can handle things differently if grades begin to drop or if your children are getting into fights. Children react like adults in many ways, but the fears are of a different kind. It also happens that children will feel guilt over what happens even if it’s no ones fault.
The better their understanding is around what’s going on, the easier it will be for everyone.

One of the worst things you can do is to shield them from what is happening. Children instinctively know when something isn’t right and it’s important to keep routines the way they are use to.

Separated family

Family can be split up in different ways and for all kind of reasons. Divorces and separation is one, but of course grown up children will move away from home and might end up hundreds of miles away from their elderly parents.
No matter what kind of split it is, always try to be understanding. To support someone who is miles and miles away is not easy. If you are divorced and just can’t seem to get along it might be better to either stay away or focus on the children (if there are children in the picture).

A good thing to remember is that a person who is in remission is the same person they were before they got ill. If they were social lions earlier they are most likely the same after treatments and surgeries. However they might not be able to entertain big groups of friends in quite some time afterwards.
On the other hand, if they haven’t been social butterflies earlier it’s not likely to happen later either. Unless they choose to.

The most important thing if you want to support a family member who is in remission is patience. Allow them to do things their own way and to choose when. Furthermore, if your attempts to help and suggest things they can do is rejected, just respect it and move on.

The best thing you can do is allow a person in remission to set the pace and to stick to the routines they are use to. Routines and everything familiar gives a sense of security and nothing is more important while someone is in remission.
And don’t forget to love them. That’s usually all it takes.