Cancer and relationships | Article – HSBC VisionGo

What I wish people knew about cancer.
Perspectives  ·    ·  4 mins read

The chance that you know someone who has had cancer, has cancer, or will have cancer, is quite high. 

As we live longer and environmental and biological carcinogens multiply, the chance of being diagnosed over our lifetime goes up dramatically. Likewise, impressive improvements in treating cancer are helping more people survive complex and once deadly diseases (there are over 120 types of cancer).

Being so prevalent, we should not shy away from conversations about preventing, treating, and living with cancer. 

Remember, there is no manual on how to react to the news or situation of cancer. The person with cancer may be going through this for the first time, and so might you. 

The initial shock

Cancer diagnosis is usually a shock. Sometimes the mind jumps to questions like: Am I going to die? The answer to this depends on whether it is a treatable cancer and survival rates are high, the stage of disease at diagnosis, and access to effective treatments and medical teams.  Will I lose a part of my body (like a breast or leg) or physical function? Is the diagnosis correct? What do I do? Will I lose my hair? How will my life change? 

The actions that follow usually include emotional processing, gathering of professional opinions and information on next steps and available treatments, confirming that the diagnosis is correct, understanding the disease, and the risks and effects of treatments.  

Living with cancer

During and after therapy, people continue to live their lives and fulfil their roles as family members, students, or workers. Sometimes the cancer comes back, and they go through treatment again, experiencing once more the full range of emotions and feelings that can accompany cancer diagnosis.

What should friends and family remember?

  • Cancer is not a death sentence. Although we associate cancer with death, the chances are high that people have been – and are – living with cancer since their diagnosis for 2 or more years. Getting cancer and undergoing treatment is only one part of living. 
  • Cancer is a diagnosis for an entire family and support group. It affects everyone around the person diagnosed. It can change friends and family for both the worse and the better.
  • Life can change at any point. We have this misconception and misinformation as a society that it will not happen to me or to someone close to me, that we are too young, too strong, too active, or too lucky. But sometimes life can flip upside down at any time. Try not to shy away from having difficult conversations when you or someone you know is diagnosed. 

Reactions from friends and family to a diagnosis of cancer

Responses tend to fall everywhere on a wide spectrum. On one end, there are those that are not ready to deal with the news and might disappear. On the opposite end, there are many people who reveal themselves to be unconditional and are there for patients every step of the way. 

Most people fall somewhere in the middle — wanting to be there because they sincerely care, but not knowing how. These friends alternate between not wanting to seem careless, but not wanting to overstep. 

What to do and not do

If someone you know has been diagnosed with cancer and is sharing this news with you, don’t be afraid to share statements of support and ask what they need. 

You can be alongside them, rather than taking it upon yourself. Sharing love, friendship, listening or distracting (as the need may be), bearing witness, and showing up can be a big part of their healing and support as they face the experience of diagnosis, treatment, and post-treatment.

Helpful reactions

Unhelpful reactions

Messages such as “I am here for whatever you need” or “How can I help?” without needing them to do anything are always appreciated.


Do not get offended… it is not personal. If they do not respond, they probably do not feel well. 

Create a group on social media. This can be a useful way to receive support and update people on a single channel, but remember to ask first if they want a group chat or to use social media.

Make it about yourself. They might not be able to be there for you in the way you expect as they deal with a physically and emotionally encompassing disease. 

Sharing opinions, you believe in but only if they have worked for you and without pressure. 

Do not assume they are their diagnosis. Before they got cancer, they were a friend, a co-worker, a student, a person you knew. Chances are they want to talk about other things than cancer.

A small gesture goes a long way. A message, visiting, or sending a small gift might feel small but it can be a meaningful interaction for a day or week. So always be willing to offer support. 


Forget. It is likely that they will not attend as many social or professional events, and you will not see them as often. Don’t forget to check in occasionally.

Silver Linings

  1. Love and Friendship. While going through challenging periods in life, we often get the gift of seeing those people who are there for you and feeling how much they love you.
  2. Gratitude. When confronted with illness, one stops taking things for granted. Because the disease disrupts so many things, one learns a lot about being grateful.
  3. Acceptance.  It is also easy to reject negative emotions and want very hard to be positive. This is the opposite of acceptance. A gentle way is to acknowledge the negative, without criticizing or judging, or trying to will yourself into being different because that is what you think you should do. Taking ‘shoulds’ out of the vocabulary helps.
  4. New people and new perspectives. In responding to cancer, people often undergo many new experiences and encounter new people and perspectives. For example, in addition to western science there is a lot to learn from other healing methods from other cultures.
  5. Empathy and Forgiveness. Everyone is going through something, whether it is a disease, a loss, pain, or insecurity. We have no way to know for certain what someone else is experiencing, but we can be more empathetic and forgiving and listen and pay attention.

The increasing number of cancer survivors and vast improvements in science and research give hope that one day we will have a cure for cancer. In the meantime, we get to learn and appreciate life in all its complexity and experiences. As we acknowledge those of us living with or having cancer amongst us, we can better understand the disease and support each other through and after. 

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