Why Friends Act the Way They Do After a Cancer Diagnosis

Lorraine Kember's Husband and His Catch

Cancer is a word that no one wants to hear, especially when it involves our own health or the health of someone close to us. Despite this, rarely a day goes by that the media does not bring a cancer-related story to our attention. 

Whether it’s a story about what we should be doing to prevent cancer or a poignant story about someone who has cancer, the news instills in us an ever-present awareness of cancer and the suffering associated with it.

News About Cancer Affects Everyone

As human beings, it is impossible not to be affected by the suffering of others. But as long as we are not personally involved with the person who has cancer, we are able to emotionally detach ourselves from it, if we wish to.

When someone within our close circle is diagnosed with mesothelioma or another type of cancer, however, it is entirely different, and it creates a ripple effect that impacts us as well as everyone else who has a relationship with that person — including family, close friends and business associates.

From the moment the cancer diagnosis becomes known, each of these groups will attempt to come to terms with the diagnosis in their own way, and this will determine how they will interact with the person who has cancer from that point on. 

It’s important to consider the reaction to a cancer diagnosis among the friends of a cancer patient and how their behavior can affect both the person who has cancer and those who care for them.

Reaction of Friends Can Impact the Patient and Caregiver

This was my experience …

We were living in the country town of Exmouth in Western Australia when my husband, Brian, was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Being business owners, we were well known within the community and used to enjoy playing lawn bowls (bowling) and joining our friends for a few drinks at the club after the game.

From the moment Brian’s mesothelioma diagnosis became known around the town, people began to treat us differently. This was particularly noticeable when we went to the club, and instead of the enthusiastic welcome we were accustomed to, we were greeted with silence, whispers or attempts at joviality.

Cancer had entered our lives, but we were still Lorraine and Brian, and we needed our friends more than ever.

No one, it seemed, could look us in the eye, nor could they remain in our company for long. It seemed as if we had suddenly lost our identity, and this hurt us both deeply. In time, some of our friends came over to ask us about Brian’s mesothelioma and how we were coping; others stayed away completely.

When friends visited our home for the first time after Brian’s diagnosis, they were visibly uncomfortable and told us that they did not know how to act around us anymore.

“Act normally,” we told them. “This is what we are trying to do.”

Thankfully, there were a couple of friends who learned to be in our company without changing their manner toward us. The times we spent with them were precious. When Brian was feeling well, his cancer was never mentioned, and we were able to put it out of our minds for a little while and just enjoy the day.

What Makes Friends Act the Way They Do?

More often than not, the cancer diagnosis of a friend comes without warning. To hear the news without having any time to prepare for it can cause a range of reactions, including:

  • Shock – can’t take it all in.
  • Feeling uncomfortable – don’t know what to say.
  • Feeling helpless – don’t know what to do
  • Disbelief – this can’t be happening.
  • Don’t want to intrude – wait for him to contact me.
  • Overcome with emotion – can’t trust myself not to break down.
  • Too confronting – easier to stay away.

All of the reactions above are completely normal, and any one of them can result in a person deciding that they cannot be around a friend who has cancer.

My experience on the receiving end of friends’ reactions, however, has taught me some valuable lessons about the needs of cancer patients and their families.  

What I Have Learned

  • Families dealing with a cancer diagnosis crave to be treated normally. Their friends are important, and they need to look forward to interacting with friends on a regular basis in the same way they did before cancer. This includes letting themselves have some fun and to have a laugh without feeling guilty.
  • People dealing with cancer may wish to talk about it at times, but they do not want the focus to be on their cancer every time they are in someone’s company.
  • Platitudes are the worst things you can say to the loved one of a cancer patient. The following are just a few of the platitudes that people said to me:

— I know how you feel.
— You are lucky you have had so many years together.
— At least you have time to do everything you need to.
— You need to be grateful for the years you have shared together.
— At least you will have the time to say goodbye.
— Everything happens for a reason.
— He’ll be going to a better place.

None of these platitudes helped me in any way; they just made me angry.

Helpful Things You Can Do for a Friend Who Has Cancer

  • The most important thing you can do for a friend who has been diagnosed with cancer is to be there for them, in the good times and the bad.
  • Let them know how much you care about them and how their cancer diagnosis has affected you. Reassure them that you will be there whenever they need you.
  • Follow their lead as to when they wish to talk about their cancer, and learn to listen rather than to give advice unless they ask for it. Most times, they just need their feelings to be acknowledged and don’t necessarily expect you to have all of the answers.
  • Make plans to do things together just like you have always done. Planning for something in the future takes their mind off of their illness and gives them something to look forward to.
  • Do fun things together that will promote a laugh. Laughter is the best medicine in the world.
  • Allow them to have a good cry if they need to. Sit quietly beside them or place a gentle arm around their shoulders until they have recovered. Once they have regained their composure, ask them if there is anything you can do to help.
  • Be aware that whoever is caring for them is very vulnerable as well and will be hurt if you do not interact with them in the same way that you have always done.

Your understanding and support of the family during this difficult time will greatly impact how they cope while living with cancer.

In my next blog, I will be discussing another caregiver issue: How to talk to talk to family and friends about your needs. Hope to see you back then.

Take care.


Lorraine Kember is the author of "Lean on Me," an inspirational personal account of her husband's courageous battle with mesothelioma. She is an accomplished public speaker in Australia and is passionate about sharing her journey with cancer. Her website can be found at www.lean-on-me.net

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