Supporting a family member or friend after active cancer treatment

The end of treatment is a significant milestone for every person affected by cancer, whether you are a patient, family member or friend, getting to the end of treatment and surviving cancer has been the focus. But what happens when you actually get there? For many patients ‘getting on with life’ is not as simple as it may seem and knowing how to support a family member or friend can be difficult. 

A cancer diagnosis and treatment are undoubtedly challenging, so it’s not surprising that recovering from treatment both physically and mentally takes time. Specialist Psychologist Dr Elaine Mayon-White, from The Harley Street Clinic, part of HCA Healthcare UK, shares some of the ways you can support your family member or friend after their cancer treatment.

Listen, sounds simple doesn’t it?

Coming to the end of treatment is an anticipated moment in any person’s cancer experience, I think the most important thing to remember and truly understand is that every person is different. So, the best way to support a family member or friend who has finished treatment is to listen and hear how they are feeling.

Not everyone wants to talk about their cancer experience

It’s natural that you want to help your family member or friend acknowledging all they have been through. Try to gauge if they want to talk to you about their experience, if they don’t, then don’t be offended. Sometimes other forms of support are equally as important, simply watching a boxset or other social activities may be just as appreciated. It’s important to let them lead on what they feel comfortable with.

If your family member or friend does want to talk then listen to their feelings and thoughts, don’t try to compare to other situations or other cancer stories. Every person’s experience is unique and different. Let them talk openly and don’t close down conversations or emotions. 

Celebrating the end of treatment feels right for some, but not for everyone

It’s natural to want to celebrate good news, the end of treatment is often associated to the title of survivorship, and for some people they will absolutely want to celebrate this, but others may not feel physically or emotionally ready. Let them take the lead in how they want to mark this milestone and try not to set any expectations, not everyone feels lucky or happy once treatment ends. 

Emotions after treatment take time to process and may be difficult to cope with

Feelings of anxiety, fear of relapse or even survivors’ guilt, can emotionally affect people both during and after treatment.

Remember after active treatment has finished most people will have longer term follow ups and tests to make sure their cancer has not returned. These checks can cause significant anxiety both leading up to the tests and while waiting for the results.

Physically people may continue to suffer with side effects of treatment or may have experienced significant changes to their body as a result of surgery. Treatment may be over, but the long-term effects often continue, and this can be difficult to adjust to and process emotionally.

This is something that you may find hard to relate to if you haven’t experienced cancer yourself. There are many forums and groups that patients can access, Macmillan Cancer Support offers some helpful online advice and support forums.

Some people may not feel comfortable in a group setting and may prefer one to one psychological support. It’s not about choosing one or the other it’s just about finding what’s right for every individual.

What felt ok today, might not feel ok tomorrow – and that’s OK

Going through treatment can be a rollercoaster of emotions and so can recovery. Some days may be filled with happiness and joy, and others may be harder to get through. Validate a person’s varied feelings and how these understandably may change daily or even hourly. There is no right way to get through cancer treatment. People can only do their best at the time.

Acknowledge that this is hard for you too

It’s never easy when a family member or friend is diagnosed with cancer and supporting them through treatment can be hard for you too. If you need someone to talk to help and support is available. Support can be found through your GP or through online resources such as Macmillan Cancer Support.

Sometimes connecting with others who have had a similar experience can really help you process your own emotions and provides a safe space to share some of your own thoughts and fears. Taking care of your own wellbeing will mean you are in a better position to support your family or friend with their wellbeing too.

If you or someone you know is finding the end of treatment difficult, please speak to your care team. They’ll be able to signpost you to help and support. Speaking to a professionally trained psychologist who is experienced in supporting the emotional wellbeing of people living with and beyond cancer, can help to process the emotional aspect of a diagnosis and treatment.