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Impacts of cancer on family, friends and children

Serious illness affects couple relationships, family life and friendships. Sometimes the illness brings people closer; sometimes it creates distance. Established roles and daily routines may alter for a while.

The impact of cancer on one’s family depends on such things as which family member is ill and the age of the children. Responsibility for finances, looking after the children and many other things have to be reassessed. Cancer may impact on one’s relationship as well.

Your relationship and sexuality(opens in a new window)

For cancer patients(opens in a new window)

A family member’s severe illness stretches the emotional resources of the rest of the immediate and extended family. Both the person with cancer and loved ones may need to protect one another from their own emotions. But the more openly they can discuss tough issues, the greater the scope for family members to support one another. Family members may manage to work things out among themselves or they may opt for family therapy or some other third party help.

Cancer is also an extreme situation for a cancer patient’s loved ones. Family members and friends find that they have to manage their relationship with cancer and life’s most fundamental questions.

Relatives and friends of cancer patients

The Association of Cancer Patients in Finland has published a handbook for cancer patients:

Survivors’ guidebook (in Finnish)(opens in a new window)


How to tell children about cancer?

Parents with cancer have to decide at what point they will talk about their illness to their children. It is usually easier to talk to a child once one’s own initial shock has subsided. But it is good to tell a child about your illness at an early stage. This gives the child more time to adjust to the situation gradually.

It is important to talk to a child about cancer objectively and honestly, and bearing in mind the child’s age and level of development. You can’t keep cancer a secret, as children will anyway sense the change of atmosphere.

Children of different ages react differently to a family member having cancer.  Their initial response may vacillate between crying and indifference, but they will in any case feel worried and frightened. This may be evident from eating disorders, sleeplessness or problems at school.

Children need support and togetherness, and should not be kept at a distance from the person who is ill. The most important thing is to show that they are taken care of regardless of the situation. They should be reassured that their parent’s or sibling’s illness is not their fault. It is also important to ensure that children or young people get sufficient support and scope to unburden themselves emotionally.

It is good if in addition to their parents, children also have a safe adult who they can rely on when the situation demands. It is also important to inform other adults, such as day care staff or a teacher at school, who have dealings with the child about your or a loved one’s illness. With teenagers, one should ask their permission before telling any adults who have dealings with them about the illness.

For an adolescents, a loved one’s illness can be especially difficult, as the family crisis coincides with big changes in their development. They are preoccupied with thoughts about their sexuality, values, questions about the hereditariness of the disease, death, and so on. A young person’s reactions to a parent’s illness may be extreme, involving rage, feeling ashamed of the parent or by closing up. Despite this, with a young person it is important to talk about the illness openly and honestly.

If a child becomes ill

For parents, having a child diagnosed with cancer is a devastating experience. It often prompts feelings of guilt, even though there is nothing they could have done to prevent the illness. It is important to try to help the child live as normal and varied life as possible despite the illness.

Read more about children’s cancer (in Finnish)

Lasten syövät(opens in a new window)

The member association of the Cancer Society of Finland, Sylva, the national association for children and young people who have cancer, was established by the parents of children with cancer. The association assists children and young people and their parents by organising rehabilitation and recreational activities for families and by publishing material on cancer in children.

Sylva (in Finnish)(opens in a new window)


Friends give support during illness. They can help you to stay positive and strong. The one who has fallen ill can talk honestly to his or her friends.

Some people who have cancer find that their circle of friends changes during the illness. This may be for a variety of reasons. Some friends may stop being in touch because they don’t know what they should say to someone with cancer and are unable to face them. Or then the person who is ill may withdraw socially. Then again, it may be due to anxiety but also physical factors, if the illness and its treatment interfere with your normal life. On the other hand, having a severe illness can alter your values and view of life, and so your friendships may also alter.


Suomen Syöpäpotilaat ry. Nuoren perheen selviytymisopas. Helsinki, 2002.

Suomen Syöpäpotilaat ry. Selviytyjän matkaopas. Helsinki, 2014.