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Cancer Narratives: Relationship Changes


Using scientific research as a springboard for discussion, CKN is distilling this research into practical narratives that will improve the quality of life for patients and offer deeper understanding and connection for physicians.  Please join this Doctor-Patient conversation about relationship changes after a cancer diagnosis.




Why Aren’t You Showing Up For Me?


by Niki Barr, PhD

“But you’re my best friend, I need you here with me.”

“How can you turn away,—seriously?”

“I’d, be there for you, you know I would…where are you?”

“You have no idea what I’m dealing with, and I want you to.”

“Please help me deal with this.”

But your friend or family member doesn’t show up for you, the one you counted on. And, maybe it’s not just one person; it’s several people in your network. Either way, you’re left feeling “abandoned” sparked with hurt, disappointment, anger, and frustration.


Why Friends “Disappear”

Feeling uncomfortable is the number one reason why friends don’t show up.  Usual explanations include:

  • Not knowing what to say;
  • Their own mother/brother/cousin had a rough time with cancer resulting in unresolved grief;
  • Scared of what could/will happen to you;
  • Worry about “having” to see/care for your medical treatment needs like dealing with incisions, ports or walking into the chemo room seeing you and others attached to IV tubes;
  • Fear you may want/need more time than is possible for them to give;
  • Resistance to talk about, think about, or be surrounded by cancer—worried about their own mortality;
  • Scared on some level — “what if” cancer is “catchable”?


How To Cope With A Changing Relationship

The most obvious solution is to meet your friend, in a quiet place, to discuss what’s going on within the relationship. Hopefully, the two of you can work through new concerns and emotions currently interrupting your friendship.

But sometimes, you don’t want to confront these issues, or you don’t have enough physical/psychological energy available to work it out. You may decide to do nothing. Perhaps, your friend needs time for sorting out what’s happened, before coming to terms with the cancer diagnosis.

Or, surprisingly, friends and family members you don’t expect to show up do. Your wants/needs for relationship comfort are re-focused– even if the relationship isn’t deeply rooted initially. As life with cancer is shared, friendships naturally unfold creating strong ties.


Show Up For Yourself

What about your own relationship, you with you? It’s essential for your wellbeing to show up for yourself. You do this by being aware of how you’re feeling– depressed, angry, sad, worried, overwhelmed, etc. Care for yourself lovingly with great self-compassion and respect. Consider talking with an oncology therapist or coach to help you navigate relationship changes and other concerns.

Additionally, create a quiet place to write, listen to music, watch a funny movie, or just sit. Lean into those things you love doing–even if that means you have to modify them for now.  You want to focus on what brings soothing and relaxation within the roller coaster ride of cancer.


Shifting Relationships

A diagnosis of cancer often brings changes in relationships. The people you think will show up for you may not, and the people you don’t expect to show up for you—sometimes the least likely– do. And then, there are those relationships that stay steady regardless–a welcome relief.

Just as relationships with friends and family are vital for helping you move through cancer, so is your own relationship with yourself. Both of these necessarily require showing up.



NikiBarrNiki has focused her career as a psychotherapist, author, and speaker on cancer. Her book Getting Off The Emotional Roller Coaster Of Cancer details specific strategies for managing emotions and issues that pop up from diagnosis to recurrence.

Her website is  Follow her on facebook and twitter.  Face book  Twitter @NikiBarrPhD


Relationship Changes After Cancer


by Terri Coutee, CKN Advisory Board Member

Did you ever experience dramatic changes in relationships as a result of your cancer diagnosis?  Friends “unfriending” you or abandoning you when you needed them most?

The two words, cancer diagnosis, begin with the letters “c” and “d”.  Sadly, during your treatment and diagnosis, friends can get caught up in two words that also begin with the letters “c” and “d”, cancer drama.  When you hear the words, “you have cancer”, you are recurrently drawn into what seems like an out of body experience; prognosis, staging of your cancer, multiple health care appointments, screening, treatment and side effects, surgeries, recovery and then, dealing with the reaction from friends and family.

The majority of people surrounded me with genuine love and support during my diagnosis but then there was the one friend who is no longer and that occurred because of and during my initial diagnosis in 2002.  Even though that was 14 years ago and the sting of the event has diminished it became a guideline for me in monitoring why people become involved in your life when you have cancer.

The woman, who shall remain nameless, enveloped me with care including rides to treatment, meals, gifts and unfortunately, invitations to “get out of the house” when I was very sick.  I had only known her a short year.  I was much younger then so I will admittedly chalk up maturity and life’s experience in not handling the situation more quickly before it reached the point of ending our friendship.  It seemed as if my cancer diagnosis gave her life meaning.  I felt like I had become her token cancer friend.

One evening she was having an outdoor party with some of her friends, none of whom I knew.  She insisted through more than one phone call in persuading me to accept the invite stating, “It will be good for you to get out of the house.”  I had just lost my hair and was now wearing my turban to cover my baldness in public.  When I got to the party that evening she introduced me as, “This is the friend I was telling you about.”  You can only imagine that at a vulnerable time in my treatment I felt like the targeted cancer patient.  I didn’t need that drama and particularly didn’t need any pity.

Another time at a pool party in the heat of the Texas summer, she insisted again I attend to “get out of the house”.  Trying to be polite, I attended for all of an hour until I could hardly bear the heat which only made my nausea worse.

At a time I was feeling very ill and vulnerable I catered to what really turned out to be her call for purpose, something to do to make herself feel needed.  I didn’t recognize that until I received a rather ill-stated email from her a few weeks later.

I was at the end of my radiation treatments and my best friend had purchased an airline ticket, left her family for over a week and come to help me during the last week when I was exhausted.  We had been friends for many years and I so appreciated her taking the time and spending the resources she did to be with me.  The other woman in this story invited herself to come have lunch with us one day, knowing that my best friend was in town.  I had to politely tell her that this was my time to be with my best friend because of the effort she made to help me out during my treatment.

She was furious and sent me an email that outlined nothing short of a guilt trip.  She told me how much she had done for me during my cancer treatment and how could I possibly treat her like that?  Cancer drama!  ARGH!

Do NOT do something for a cancer patient because you have a need or an empty part in your life that needs to be fulfilled.  Many cancer patients, present company included, are often tearfully overwhelmed with the generosity and love that is shown to them.  Cancer patients should not have to fill someone else’s life bucket of need.  Volunteer to help a cancer patient because you want to help with no strings, no obligation attached.  I would venture to say, that in most instances, if the tables were turned, a cancer patient would do the same for you, with no expectations attached.  They would see the need, do what they could to make things easier during your treatment and go on with their own lives.  That is what we all want, to go on with our own lives, no additional drama please!




Terri Coutee is the founder of  Her blog provides resources along with a personal account of her own breast reconstruction. While working on her M.Ed. in Teacher Leadership, Terri was diagnosed for the second time with breast cancer.  She turned her years of being an educator into a purposeful life becoming an advocate for breast reconstruction options after mastectomy.  She has taken a keen interest in the passage of the Breast Cancer Patient Education Act. She actively participates in social media administering an on-line support group, sharing evidence based research and engaging in community activities that support breast cancer and breast reconstruction.  You can find her on Twitter @6state or on Pinterest and Instagram @tgcoutee.






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