As you may have noticed, when you tell someone you, or a close family member, have cancer, they begin to act in a different manner. It's not in your mind. The National Cancer Institute says talking with others about cancer is difficult. Communication can be easier—or harder—depending on the relationship before your illness.

What happens is that roles change, triggering new and unexpected emotions. After treatment ends, adult children may have trouble letting recently ill parents make their own decisions again. Parents of adult cancer patients may still feel a need to protect their children and stay involved.

Psychologist LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D., says, "The Big "C" and other health threats frighten people. They don't know what to say or act as though your ailment is contagious. And, they often spend too much time talking about their OWN fears and awkwardness!" 

To alleviate this tension, Dr. Wish suggests tailoring your responses to the individual. Here, a few ideas:

  • Quickly thank acquaintances for their kindness and care—even if they didn't seem very kind. "Your thanks will send a wake-up call message to them. Save your energy and emotional anguish for people you are close to."
  • Call or write a personal note to close friends telling each of them what you need.
  • Communicate your needs. "When my mother was dying," says Dr. Wish, "I asked my closest friends to call me every week to check on me.However, not all good friends are created equal when it comes to empathy and wisdom.It is good to tell your story, talk about updates, and share your fears, but be selective about how much you reveal and how much you ask of your friends. One way to restore and sustain good feelings about yourself and others is to make sure you remain a good friend, too. Genuine connectedness reduces feelings of isolation."
  • Subtly let them know what to say to you. Despite best intentions, others are bound to say or do something you don't like. Dr. Wish says your best approach is to thank them for caring and then tell them how you would like to be treated. "The trick is not say, 'Here's what I want you to say to me.' Instead, for example, say to someone who babies you, 'Thank you for your concern.I'm over that baby stage. I know you are a caring person, so I would love it if you would just ask me about my recent tests.'

"It's normal to expect good friends to 'come through for you,'" Dr. Wish says. "However, you don't know how someone is going to react to illness. Don't get angry; get smart and educate them about what you want."

LeslieBeth Wish EDD, MSS, MA, reviewed this article.


National Cancer Institute. "Taking Time: Support for People with Cancer." Web. 13 August 2012.