When Cancer Has Touched Someone You Know


When someone you know has had cancer, please be mindful. There is never really a ‘had’ when cancer is involved. ‘Had’ implies finished, final, gone.

‘I had cancer’ is not like ‘I had a cold’.

Being in remission is not the same as being cured.

When someone you know is living life after cancer, they might be ‘getting on with it’. But that’s not the same as ‘getting over it’.

Cancer leaves its stamp. The ink might fade, but the imprint will always be there. The memory of chemo. The nails that won’t grow. The creaking bones. The scars that make it difficult to sleep, to perform every day functions.

Then there is the fear of its return, but this time, the cancer stamp might be in strong, indelible ink.

The experience of cancer is like an invisible shadow. Attached, following wherever you go, skirting there, just to the side of your vision.

Expecting someone not to change after cancer is like expecting a butterfly to turn back into a caterpillar.

Accepting that someone we care about will inevitably be different after cancer, encourages our empathy for them. Importantly, accepting the emotions of someone who has been through cancer can help them accept themselves.

We could say ‘you look really down’, or ‘it must be frightening at times’.

If we expect someone to get over cancer, then we might ask ourselves why we want this. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with another’s emotional pain, uncertainty, or their loss of confidence. Perhaps we are finding it difficult to cope with another’s change in personality and desires.

If we are feeling uncertain about what to say when we see our person who has suffered cancer, we could try some self-disclosing statements.

‘I can’t imagine what it would be like’, or ‘I don’t understand, and am a bit frightened, by the changes I see’, or ‘I’m worried about the effect of the cancer on our children, and on me.’

These phrases, although they may be confronting, can begin the conversation, and may even deepen our understanding and our relationship.

Cancer changes lives. Not only of the person who experienced the disease, but their family, their friends, even their health professionals.

Perhaps the best way to help someone after cancer is to help them accept what is happening now.

In the words (modified for today’s gender understandings) of Thomas Gordon, psychologist, author, and student of Carl Rogers:

“It is one of those simple but beautiful paradoxes of life: When a person feels that [they are] truly accepted by another, as [they are], then [they are] freed to move from there and to begin to think about how [they] want to change, how [they] want to grow, how [they] can become different, how [they] might become more of what they are capable of being.”

(If you would like ideas on communicating in a way that is helpful and maintains the relationship, you might like to read this article. To make this relevant to your situation, substitute ‘other person’ for ‘child’.)

Further links and resources:

'Oh no, I forgot my breast' and other stories of a cancer diagnosis

"I cant promise I'll get better" Telling my children I have cancer

Life After Cancer. Cancer Australia (an Australian Government resource).

What do you say to someone with cancer?

Life in the long shadow of cancer.

By Larissa Dann. 19 August, 2017; updated 4th February 2019.

© Larissa Dann 2017, 2019

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