How do I support a friend with Cancer? Once treatment ends…

Has your friend been diagnosed with cancer?  Are you finding it hard to know how to support them and want to know more about how they are feeling?

The effects of a cancer diagnosis do not end once treatment ends… this is a big misconception that survivors want you to know.   The fall out goes on and on and touches parts of your life that you never would have imagined.

I wanted to put this together because, after my leukaemia diagnosis in 2015, I’ve found that not everyone around you understands fully the impact can have on your life and in what way.  There is a gap between those with cancer and their friends who want to support them simply because they are on different sides of it.

I have drawn from my own experience and from that of others I’ve spoken to who’ve also been through this.  There is no rule book, no right or wrong but reading this can help you understand more of what may be going on for someone who is trying to put their life back together again post diagnosis.

If your friend has finished their treatment then the following 12 points may be really useful to help you continue to support them.

  1. The struggle isn’t over when treatment ends ~ This is a big misconception and to someone who has endured the toxic chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery really this is pretty obvious and to assume that the patient has bounced back as if nothing happened can be interpreted as thoughtless.  Of course this is probably a misunderstanding but this is how many patients tell me they feel when friends think that once their treatment has finished its all over.  For many coming to terms with what has happened can be as much of a struggle as the treatment itself.
    • There are usually ongoing regular check ups and monitoring often for years which mean forgetting about their cancer is impossible.  Having to wait for the results of a scan or blood test to determine whether or not the cancer has returned brings back all sorts of fears and emotions.
    • Most people suffer long term health problems caused by their chemotherapy, including chronic pain, chronic fatigue, serious memory problems, damage to organs and so on.
    • Treatment may have finished but do you know what this means for your friend? Are they cured or in remission?  Firstly amongst cancer patients surviving means many different things and can be interpreted in different ways so perhaps be mindful of this.  Secondly if they say they are in remission this does not mean they are cured, this could mean that their cancer could return at any time.  It depends on their type of cancer and other factors.
  2. Don’t Make Assumptions ~ the worst thing you can do as a friend of a cancer patient is assume you know about their cancer because not all cancer’s are the same, this is another big misconception. There are so many surprising things about cancer and it is often very personal to each individual so the last thing a friend will want is someone telling them how they should be feeling or what should be happening.  It is best to ask open questions so that you can get a picture of their situation then you will be able to offer the right support and say the right things.
    • If you are concerned about how your friend will react then you can always put something in a text to gauge whether or not a) they are ready to open up b) they want to at all.  If you count yourself as a good friend then you probably already have an inclination of how they will react.  The worst thing you can do is say nothing, even if they answer that they don’t want to talk they will know that you are and are interested and this will mean a lot to them..
  3. Cancer isn’t  a ‘dirty word’ ~ cancer does not go away because you don’t mention, this doesn’t mean you need to mention it every time you see your friend but if it comes up naturally in conversation and your friend is willing to let the subject flow then go with it.  Equally don’t avoid conversations altogether because your friend will still have the same every day things going on that you do, like they always did.  So chatting about family, children, work, holidays etc is still ok.
  4. Support their post cancer life ~ however or whatever your friend needs to do to cope with their diagnosis and put their life back together again is ok.  Having you as a friend to listen, bounce ideas off and discuss how they can move forward is invaluable.  You haven’t been through what your friend has and they will not appreciate being told how they should be dealing with their diagnosis.  It is a very common reaction for survivors to need to help others, work with charities, fund raise, link up with other patients and live a life with purpose.
  5. Don’t be a stranger ~ this doesn’t mean you are expected on their doorstep every day week or even month but with modern technology how it is today there really is no excuse for not sending the odd message here or there.  Your friend will probably be feeling very vulnerable and sensitive to little things so now is the time for you to be the one who needs to keep the ‘door open’.  It may have been the other way around before their diagnosis so bear this in mind.
  6. Coming to terms with a New Normal ~ this is something no one tells you about and no one is aware of until they finish treatment and try to pick up their life where it left off before diagnosis.  Getting back to normal just does not happen for many reasons and so the last thing your friend needs to hear is that they can get back to normal now that their treatment has finished.
  7. Socialising ~ There will be times when your friend will seem like their old self and be part of the social life that has always been there but there will also be times when they will need to take themselves away and take some time out.  As they are going through the different phases of coming to terms with it all there will be periods where they just cannot keep up their ‘I’m ok’ face.  Constantly smiling and pretending that they are coping fine when actually they are in the middle of a down period is exhausting and a big strain.  Be patient, keep in touch but don’t pressure them.  Also remember that they will come out of it and will really appreciate the fact that you gave them the space they needed.  A message to let them know you are there when they are ready is would also be a nice thing to do.
  8. Many have to face significant career changes/loss ~ some are unable to return to their previous employment or can only go back on reduced hours.  This can be hard to come to terms with, they may have spent years training or working long hours to get to where they were so don’t underestimate the psychological affect this may have.  One of my friends said something really dismissive about my situation when this happened to me and I wonder how she would have felt if she’d been in a similar position.  I know some who have had to be medically retired at a relatively young age after working very hard for her degree.
  9. Implications on their life ~ being diagnosed with cancer has many implications on someone’s life such as career opportunities, having to tell a new/potential employer about their diagnosis, if they are single how they approach a relationship, the implications of their cancer on their children (if there are genetic links), holiday insurance and other insurances, how far they feel they can plan ahead and so on.
  10. Image change ~ Losing your hair can have a big impact, again each person handles it differently but I know from talking to many patients that looking in the mirror and not recognising the person looking back is both upsetting and confusing.   Also don’t underestimate how this can knock their confidence, firstly having to be seen with their ‘chemo hat’ in public, to starting to go out without it once hair starts to grow back to not being recognised in your own neighbourhood by people you know very well.  This has nothing at all to do with vanity, it’s about identity and feeling comfortable in your own skin.
  11. Ask if they are ok ~ even months after their treatment has finished, not every day of course, just every now and then.  They are realistic and know everyone has their own pressures but often a few words are enough.
  12. Join them on their new adventure ~ Many of my friends have been by my side when I have organised fundraisers where we have had lots of fun, made new friends and renewed old friendships.  We have been to events where we’ve met some wonderful people it has reminded us of what is really important, how enriching and rewarding life can be.

I hope this has been helpful and thank you for taking the time to read my blog, please follow for more tips…

Also… the blood cancer charity, Bloodwise, run a forum which is a private place where you can talk to others, patients, carers and Bloodwise staff, for advice and support.  It is a safe place where you can talk openly about anything or ask any questions you may have; The Bloodwise blood cancer forum

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