It’s normal for relationships to change after a cancer diagnosis. You, your family and friends will be dealing with strong emotions—and learning how to communicate effectively may take some time. Flexibility and forgiveness will be helpful. Michael Ryan, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist with Henry Ford Health, shares tips for coping--or letting go.
- Dealing with sadness and tears: If someone’s heartache about your diagnosis upsets you, consider saying: “Would you please give me a gift? I need your support. Please gather your strength and resilience to help me. Please talk with someone else about your sad feelings.” Community resources are available through organizations like Imerman Angels and Gilda’s Club.
- Dealing with thoughts that are meant to be encouraging—but may be minimizing: Friends can intend to be supportive, but sometimes it doesn't come off that way. For example, if a friend says, “I know someone who had your type of cancer. They’re fine now, so don’t worry,” it might make you feel like they think your diagnosis isn't a big deal. Be kind and direct in your response. You could say something like, “I appreciate that you're trying to help. I’m working through my own ways of dealing with this disease.”
- Dealing with avoidance and disengagement: People may feel helpless or have limited experience with a serious illness. Some survivors may not want to hear about cancer and re-experience their pain. If your attempts to connect have failed, find other supporters. Imerman Angels is an excellent resource.
- Dealing with judgement and blame: Beliefs about treatment may trigger judgmental feedback or comments. Make and keep clear boundaries. Let people know you’ve heard their viewpoint; you’ve studied your options and made your decision. Ask them to still support you. If addictions or lifestyle issues spark blame for cancer, remember that self-compassion is important for recovery.
- Dealing with those who are anxious or overbearing: Fear produces a physical reaction—fight, flight or freeze. Directing that energy can be helpful. Tell people your specific needs—cleaning, cooking, running errands or resting alone. They may respond quickly and support you.
- Dealing with difficult personalities: During treatment, personality problems may be glaring. Choose your challenges and save your strength. Accept differences but look for compromises.
- Dealing with re-emerging friendships: After treatment, friends from before you had cancer may re-emerge. Now what? Be bitter or be better? Forgiveness might make you stronger.
Michael Ryan, Psy.D., is the clinical director of cancer supportive services at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute.