April 10, 2023

The Empowered Survivor: Relating to Family & Friends

Head of Clinical Content

TLDR: There are many parts of cancer that can feel challenging or overwhelming. One thing that always stood out to me is feeling a bit lost in previously familiar and safe spaces  - like in my relationship with family and friends. A huge part of the challenge of survivorship both during and after treatment is figuring out how to rebuild a sense of empowerment and security in this new terrain. While everyone’s experience is unique and there is certainly no “right” way to do this, I’ve put together some general strategies I found helpful when building this skillset in my own survivorship. In this segment, I discuss strategies for navigating relationships with family and friends after a cancer diagnosis including identifying your needs, communicating clearly, setting boundaries, and finding creative ways to include the people you love in your survivorship journey in a way that feels right to you. 

Relating to my family and friends after I was diagnosed with cancer felt a bit tough for both parties. While I often felt misunderstood or out of place even within my close relationships, family and friends without this lived experience often told me they felt unsure of how to help or be supportive. I found it hard to anticipate my needs at any given time, and often overwhelming when people asked well-meaning questions like “how can I help?”.  I found the post-treatment phase of survivorship to be particularly challenging. I felt like I was expected to move on with my life, while the challenges of survivorship remained on a day to day basis. If you are finding yourself navigating relationships after a cancer diagnosis, consider experimenting with these strategies to help guide your approach. 

Identify your specific needs: 

It can be really helpful to take a moment to figure out what your needs are from the people in your life. If you’re not sure where to start, try jotting down a list of everything you’re finding difficult and include the most simple things to the most time-intensive. This can range from help with basic tasks, to providing emotional support, being an exercise buddy, or just someone regularly checking in. Some of my survivor friends have shared how nice it’s been to have someone helping walk their dog once a week, or the support they’ve felt when a friend has stepped up to accompany them to doctor's visits, or has motivated them to exercise in a fun, healthy way.  These needs will inevitably change over time, but it’s helpful to have a starting point and a list of options when people ask how they can help. 


I can’t stress enough how communication is key.  Many survivors have strong preferences around all kinds of things that might not be intuitive for friends and family. For example,  their willingness to talk about their cancer history or treatment, their approach to food, sleep, or physical activity. These needs can sometimes make planning things with family or friends feel stressful. Strategies for this can be as simple as communicating boundaries around your need for self care, or the types of things about your health you are willing to discuss. It can also be helpful for your friends and family to understand the reasoning behind a particular need or preference, ie a nutritional or lifestyle choice. It’s also completely normal to feel overwhelmed by the idea of having to constantly communicate your needs to others. One strategy is to designate a temporary point person, and communicate with everyone else when you feel ready. 

Set boundaries

There is no better time to practice saying “no” to things than when you are navigating life as a cancer survivor. This can include turning down activities or events that may be too physically or emotionally taxing, asking for privacy or space when needed, or limiting interactions with people who may be unsupportive or negative. 

Include the people you love:  

Your network of family and friends can be a huge asset in supporting you through the ups and downs of survivorship. Include them in ways that feel right to you - whether it’s celebrating a health milestone or the results of a scan, bringing a person you trust to your doctor’s visit to help take notes, or involving them in any lifestyle changes you are taking on. Figure out creative, fun, and helpful ways to include the meaningful people in your life as a cancer survivor in a way that feels right. Healthy relationships are a key part of the survivorship journey.

Taken together, it’s completely normal to find yourself struggling to relate in the same way to family and friends in your life after cancer. This process usually gets easier when you take the time to figure out what your needs are, you communicate them clearly and set boundaries, and find new ways to engage your loved ones in your life. Many of these same principles apply to navigating your work environment after a cancer diagnosis – if you haven’t already read our segment on cancer and the workplace, you can find it here.  If you have strategies for navigating these issues as a cancer survivor, we want to hear from you! Send us a message on our social media channels, or reach out via email. 

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