Below are some thoughts, experiences and advice other young people have shared with us about relationships with family and friends after treatment for cancer.
How have your relationships with friends and family changed?
“Relationships with friends have significantly improved, as I have been more able to attend dinners, catch-ups, play golf with my mates and watch them play cricket at our cricket club. My family relationships (mum and dad) have stayed constant throughout treatment and post, as I look to move out and feel the drift from them as I mature in life.”
“I held my parents much at arm’s length before and this has given them a chance to worm their way back into my life a little bit and I sort of resent that. I mean, I want there to be firm boundaries and I want to advocate for myself within my relationships but I don’t feel that my parents allow me to do that in our relationship. I feel like they want to help, but that they do so in ways that aren’t helpful for me and get defensive when I try to push back. My friends respected the boundaries that I set, and that was good. But my parents’ feelings of family trumps all made me feel like they did not respect me enough to listen to me when I told them what I needed after treatment.”
“Relationships within my immediate family (mum, dad, brother, cousin and uncle & aunty) have grown, we were close during treatment and then that became stronger afterwards too, I guess there is a sense of admiration for what I went through and I also admire them for their strength to standby and remain the same to me honestly. I guess it just reinforced that they cared for me a lot. I still live at home with my parents so there has been times where we have lost patience and snapped a bit but I believe that’s just because we have been in our back pocket for so long in a small space without alone time. Relationships with friends has also improved, I know the core group who were with me during treatment and they haven’t stopped their support. The whole experience has almost brought us closer than what we were before.”
“I’ve learned to be more open, honest and transparent [with] those around me. I speak up, I have the tough conversations, I re-evaluate my behaviour when someone pulls me up on my indiscretions and I try again. I don’t assume everyone knows what I’m feeling or I them.
Treatment taught me the importance of patience, space and empathy. There is no perfection or idyllic relationship but I have found the ones that change you […] are the kind ones. The ones who answer every call and tell you not to apologise. Who love you at your most demanding and emotionally laborious times and greet your moods with open arms – they are the ones to keep and keep working to be better at.”
“My family has gotten a lot closer than it was before diagnosis. For three months I had chemo (and was in hospital) for 5 days every three weeks. I lived 1-2hrs away from the hospital and my mum always stayed the 5 days I was having treatment. This put a lot of stress on my dad and siblings because the family dynamic changed. Dad had to take my siblings to school every morning, cook dinner, take them to different after school activities, training, sports on weekends, and help them with homework all while going to work himself. Sometimes they all came up to the hospital on a weeknight. We’d watch tv and order takeaway to the hospital. I liked those nights the best. It was nice to experience something ‘normal’. During the weeks I didn’t have treatment my family just tried to treat me how they usually did.
I found that with my friends, they didn’t really know how to act around me. We hadn’t heard of anyone our age with cancer, it was only old people and those little kids you see on fundraising advertisements.
I drifted away from a few friends. I guess they thought that because I was having chemo, I wasn’t allowed to go out and have fun, so they stopped inviting me. It was kinda hard watching all of my friends go back to uni while I was stuck in hospital, but I also kinda liked it because I knew I wasn’t missing many social activities because they were all too busy with homework.”
“My relationships with my family have definitely changed. I wouldn’t say strengthened as we were already extremely close, but we all talk more often and it’s really made me appreciate them being around more for sure. I have also seen sides of them I hadn’t previously seen. For example I never knew my sister was as perceptive as she is. During treatment she always knew what to ask the doctors and also always knew how to make all my visitors feel a bit more at ease somehow. Since treatment has ended I look at all of my family members slightly differently because of how I experienced them during and I am thankful for this.
My friendships have definitely been strengthened because of treatment! My chemo was quite intensive and I had 4 hour days for a week at a time, my friends would take in turns at joining me for this. Spending 4 hours sitting still, feeling the sickest I’ve ever felt, changed the dynamic of these relationships. Not being able to fake feeling okay meant silences became comfortable and there was a level of patience from both of us that wasn’t there before! My friends looked after me more than I knew was possible and that has changed our relationships for the better forever. I know I couldn’t have come out of this as well as I did without my friends and family.”
What surprised you?
“Nothing really, I expected my relationships would improve as I was more able to see my friends. My partner has been my rock throughout the whole thing so that has not changed pre, during or post-treatment.”
“Losing a friendship which was, admittedly, on its way out but their not really caring or offering any support really cemented that I didn’t want to keep that relationship.”
“I had plenty of support during the initial few months after my diagnosis, during chemo and post surgery. However, post active treatment and moving in to the monitoring stage is when I have needed the most support. I think this is difficult for most people to understand because life looks like it is returning to ‘normal’ – my hair is growing back (yay), I don’t look ‘sick,’ I’m back at work and exercising. I have definitely felt the support drawing away and I am surprised at just how much I was relying on it. I am now becoming more open with my supports and sharing with them what is happening and when I need help, but this is difficult for me.”
“I wouldn’t say my mates are ‘typical teenage blokes’; they’re upfront and honest and genuine guys. I recently found out [that] when I was in hospital and they found out, they were a mess- two of them lived together and didn’t really know how to deal with it. They openly confessed to not dealing at all and were terrified of what was to come. It has now opened up a discussion about our mental states and how we can support each other, a positive out of all this has been an opportunity to open up to one another.”
What advice do you have for others?
“Set firm boundaries with friends and family – and don’t feel ashamed that you have to do that to protect yourself.”
“Be upfront with friends, they won’t ever judge you for having a scar or not having hair or still being crook or not as fit as before. If they’re true friends and supportive family those factors shouldn’t be an issue. It’s easier said than done but in the long run it’s worth knowing who’s there for you and vice versa.”
“Everyone reacts differently to a cancer diagnosis. [People you don’t hear from], they’re most likely not ignoring you, cancer has probably affected their family in some way. A few of my friends didn’t speak to me until I got the news I was all clear, whereas others were extremely clingy and wanted to know every detail of my appointments. If you can, go out or invite some friends round to show that you’re [still] a teenager/young adult and you can still do ‘normal’ things.”
“Some relationships will become so much more than you hoped, some will fall by the wayside. You’ll experience grief and love and pathos and pain simultaneously, and then you’ll come to realise that everyone is doing the best they can. The anger you have towards those you thought would be there will fade to indifference. The ones you knew you were outgrowing will slowly soften and the ones you didn’t suspect could become so much more than they already were, become just that.”
“Coming to the end of treatment it took me a while to realise that I didn’t need looking after anymore. So some advice might be not to be offended or surprised when people stop offering to do everything for you, because they can see how okay you are maybe before you can.
Also to be patient with everyone, yourself and your relationships. I assumed because life was so mundane during treatment that afterwards my life and my interactions with everyone would immediately become so exciting all of a sudden, which it didn’t because everyone else has continued life almost normally while yours was so different. But I am remembering just to be thankful for normal life and doing normal, even boring things.”