Breast cancer affects not only those who are diagnosed, but family and friends as well. Open, honest communication plays an important role in helping you cope with the challenges you may encounter with friends and family members.

Maintaining supportive relationships can help you in coping with breast cancer. It’s possible that you will find that you need more emotional and practical support than you may have needed in the past, so it can be helpful to have a strong circle of support around you. Feeling connected to others can also reduce the sense of isolation that many people with cancer may experience. Enjoying the company of other people can also take your mind off of cancer. You may find comfort and strength from attending a local cancer support group and meeting other people who are going through the same experience as you. You can also always call Willow if you want to talk about how you are feeling or for help in accessing local support resources.

Is it normal for me to want “me” time, and not be around others?

It’s normal to feel like you need some time and space for yourself. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, it can be important to take time for yourself to process what is happening and to decide how you will proceed.

Your friends and family will likely be eager to help and be with you. It’s important to communicate to your loved ones about your needs and how they can help, including giving you the time and space you need for yourself.

It’s also normal for you to not feel quite like “yourself” and want to withdraw. It’s common to go through periods of low moods when you are coping with cancer. When you are going through treatment, you may be dealing with symptoms, such as fatigue, which may make it difficult to remain part of day-to-day life. Take things day by day, based on how you are feeling; if you are not feeling up to being social some days, that’s okay.

Is it common for people to pull away from me after they learn I have cancer?

Relationships can change after a person has been diagnosed with cancer. It is common for friends and family members to be very supportive and caring – your relationships with them may become even stronger.

However, sometimes friends and family members may not be there for you, for a variety of reasons. Some people do not know what to say or do. They may be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, so they shy away. Others may be very uncomfortable dealing with the reality of cancer: these are their issues, not yours. Although their behaviour can be hurtful, you should try not to take it personally. They may need some time to process their feelings, just like you did when you learned about your diagnosis.

How do I deal with unhelpful or insensitive people?

It can be upsetting when friends, acquaintances, and even close family members treat you in a way that is unhelpful or insensitive, even if it is not their intention to be hurtful.

You can choose to let them know that they are not being supportive or that they have let you down. People often do not know what you need or don’t need unless you tell them, so it can be helpful for you to clearly express how you are feeling and what you need.

In some cases, you may need to let go of those who have let you down and focus on the road ahead and those who are there for you. It may be best for you to avoid any unnecessary stress that negative relationships can add to your life while you are trying to cope with cancer.

I’m not comfortable asking for, or accepting, help…what should I do?

You are stronger, not weaker, when you learn to accept the help of others. When family and friends offer to help you, remember that they are doing so because they truly care about you and you would do the same for them. They will also feel good knowing that they have been able to help you.

Sometimes people want to help, but often don’t know how. You may want to consider keeping a list of tasks you are comfortable sharing so that you can make specific suggestions if someone asks “how can I help?”

You may want to have a family member or friend list those things that you know need to be done. This person would then act as the “go to person” that would let other well-wishers know how they can help.

Links to more information

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Relationships and Cancer
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO)

Relationships and Family
Breast Cancer Care

Help for Relationships Challenged by Cancer
Coping Magazine

Communicating with Your Partner
Livestrong Foundation

Cancer Survivors: Reconnecting with Loved Ones after Treatment
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research

How to Ask for Help (video)
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

How to Talk to Friends (video)
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

How to Deal with Spouses’ Emotions  (video)
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center