Cancer and the Family

When you come alongside someone with cancer and their family, you need to remember that cancer affects the whole family, not just the person dealing with the disease. And since all families are not alike, they will not all deal with cancer in the same way. The family you work with might include a spouse or partner, children and parents. Or, it may be the cancer patient and a family composed of close friends and neighbors or even coworkers. A patient’s family members are those who provide love and support. Below are some facts, tips, ideas you might be able to share with the patient and family at an appropriate time as you walk with them on the cancer journey.



Not all families will find it easy to talk about cancer. Some families share their feelings and fears, their frustrations and worries, with ease. Others might find it more difficult to communicate about cancer and all the changes it brings. Sometimes using another complicated situation the family has already dealt with, like the loss of a loved one, a difficult divorce, or unemployment can act as a kind of "road map" to help them communicate, determine next steps and alleviate stress. If the cancer patient you’re working with, and his or her family, are having trouble talking about their feelings, they might want to consider talking to their doctor, nurse, someone at church or even a counselor. Finding someone to help them work through emotions can be hard to do, but, in the end, it can bring them closer together and prevent unnecessary tension or conflict.


Changes and Adjustments

It's important to understand the impact cancer can have on family roles and dynamics. Cancer might alter routines, cause strain in relationships or require more help doing daily chores like cleaning or shopping for groceries. Insurance companies can make things difficult, and the cost of treatment may cause financial strain. Some cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation, can make the patient feel tired and weak. Surgeries often require recovery time and can leave the patient feeling fatigued. Depending on how the person’s body copes with treatments, he or she might need someone to take time off work to provide care. Cancer might bring great change to the person’s life, so keep that in mind as you try to minister and help them remember that together, they will get through it.


Daily Life

Cancer might make it feel like the household has been turned upside down. As roles and responsibilities change, you might talk to the patient about developing a clear plan for him or herself. This should include letting everyone know what things he or she would like to continue to try to do on their own, but should also include making sure everyone knows he or she isn’t going to be afraid to let others help. Accepting help is not a sign of weakness. If family members can’t take care of all the patient’s needs, they might consider asking others – maybe from church or work – for help or looking into hiring outside help. Make sure everyone in the family takes time to have a little fun, rest and do something "normal" that does not revolve around cancer.



The additional expense of cancer treatments can greatly alter how much money a family has to spend or save. Depending on what their health insurance covers, they might have to pay "out of pocket" or cover some of the costs with their own money. If the patient isn’t able to work during cancer treatment, another family member might have to get a job to help pay for expenses. Because the bills for cancer treatments can be confusing and complex, the patient and family might want to sit down and carefully investigate what the insurance company will pay for and what they will have to cover.


Spouses and Partners

Cancer can be just as scary for the spouse or partner as it is for the patient. If the patient normally plays the role of caregiver, it might be hard for him or her to be the one being taken care of instead. Sharing information and making decisions about treatment together will be important. They need to talk to the doctor together and learn about symptoms, treatment options, and possible side effects. If the spouse or partner goes with the patient to the doctor, he or she can ask questions and better know how to help take care of the patient both emotionally and physically. Just because one member of the couple has cancer, doesn’t mean they have to spend every hour of every day with one another. Each one needs to take time for him or herself and encourage the spouse or partner to take time to enjoy hobbies or just get out of the house—even if it is to do errands or take a walk.



Children, even as young as 18 months, understand what is going on around them. Children need the explanation that the patient is sick and doctors will be working hard to make him or her feel better. Although it might be hard to tell children the truth, it is better to be honest with them and help prevent their imaginations from coming up with something far worse than reality. Answer children's questions with simple answers they will understand. Try to use vocabulary they already know. For example, say "medicine" instead of "chemotherapy,” or "doctor" instead of "oncologist." There are many illustrated children's books about cancer that might be a good way to help explain situation to a child. Remind the patient to inform other adults in the children's lives—like their teachers at school or sports coaches—about the cancer. These other adults might be able to listen, talk about feelings or answer questions for the child.


It's normal for children to react to the news of cancer in a variety of ways. Some children might feel angry when they are asked to do more to help around the house. Other children might act out and get in trouble at school. Feeling scared, guilty, or lonely or even regressing and behaving much younger than his/her age could all be ways a child reacts to cancer.



Teenagers are already dealing with changes in hormones and a growing desire for independence. Dealing with a parent who has cancer might make them act out, get into trouble at school or even become depressed. Help parents encourage their teen to stay involved at school, church, in the community and spend time with friends.


Adult Children

Even if the patient has grown children, they will still be affected by a cancer diagnosis. Although it might make them upset, worried, or frustrated, the patient needs to take time to talk with them about the treatment plan, financial plan and what he or she would like to happen if he or she isn’t able to beat the disease. It will probably be very difficult for the patient and family to think about losing the battle with cancer, but communicating requests and talking through options can lessen anxiety. If the patient lives close enough to the adult children, he or she might ask them to help with chores around the house, drive to treatments, help make decisions and assist in paying health bills in a timely manner. The patient might ask his or her adult children to help explain some of the information the doctor shares or even accompany him or her to doctor's appointments. Don't be afraid to let children provide care — even if it seems awkward at first for traditional roles to be reversed.



Just because someone has cancer doesn’t mean he or she has any less time to spend with your friends. On the contrary, friends are a great support system and can lend a helping hand. Just like family members, friends might be upset, afraid and confused about what to say or how to treat the person after they find out he or she has cancer. Reassure them that the cancer patient is the same old "you." Remind the cancer patient to let friends help do things for him or her. It will not only help relieve stress, but it might help the friends cope with the diagnosis and make them feel like they’re making a positive difference in the patient’s life. He or she might ask a friend to cook meals that can be frozen ahead of time for days when the patient isn’t feeling well, pick up and drive children to and from school/activities or take the dog for a walk. If the patient likes company during treatments, you might volunteer to go along or he or she might ask a friend to along. Some friends might even want to help clean the patient’s house, water their flowers or mow their yard.


Tips for Supporting a Loved One with Cancer

Here are some additional tips to remember in supporting someone with cancer, whether you’re doing the supporting or you're helping family members provide the care:


·         Just ask. If you aren't sure how your loved one wants to deal with his/her cancer, just ask. Don't assume they can't handle an open, honest discussion. While your loved one may want to be treated as normally as possible, they may still want to keep things simple. Communicating with your loved one can help everyone feel better.

·         Include your loved one. Your loved one likely wants to feel as independent and in control as possible. Allow your loved one to decide what they can and will do. Avoid making decisions without them. Instead, work together with your loved one to make decisions and everyone will feel more comfortable.

·         Be a good listener. Don't try to tell your loved one what to think, feel or how to act. Sometimes just being there to listen, without judgment, is the best thing you can do. They might not want to talk at all, and would rather sit quietly instead. They might even feel like crying—and letting your emotions out can be a very good thing. Remember, you don't always have to find solutions or fix everything. Just follow your loved one's cues and acknowledge their feelings.

·         Accept your loved one's bad days. Even as you try to be hopeful and cheerful, your loved one may feel different inside. That’s okay. Your loved one can't be expected to be upbeat and positive at all times. And, putting these demands on them will only cause more frustration, guilt and stress. Give your loved one space if they need it and try not to take things too personally.

·         Communicate sensitively. Avoid saying things like: "I know how you feel," "Stay positive," or "Don't worry, you'll be fine." Instead, you can say things that help like: "You are not alone in this, I'm here for you," or "I love you and we will get through this together."

·         Be aware of side effects. Your loved one may be dealing with side effects from cancer treatment, such as weight loss, hair loss, nausea, and fatigue. They may be worried about how others will react to seeing them. Aside from feeling self-conscious, they may worry about having the strength and energy to get through the day. Ask your loved one what you can do to make them feel better and more confident.

·         Remind your loved one that you care. Your loved one may need extra reassurance that they are still needed and loved. Find gifts that reflect who they are apart from cancer (e.g., books, art, music, or tickets to the museum, theater, sporting events, etc). Also, human touch goes a long way. Give them a hug or pat on the back. Show your loved one that you still see them as a person, not as a cancer patient.


The diagnosis and treatment of cancer is scary, but helping a patient and their family members draw near each other and others they love can help to ease your fear. Families can provide an incredible network of support in many ways, big and small, as they battle this disease together with the patient.