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In addition to the physical, mental, and emotional impacts of surviving cancer, there is also a major impact on the interpersonal relationships of a cancer survivor. Many of the various role and relationship changes can begin even before diagnosis, affecting everyone that a cancer patient interacts with and the social situations in which they find themselves. After diagnosis and treatment, there are other issues to be dealt with, which can have an effect on the survivor’s role in the family and social circles.

Loss of Independence

Cancer often strips survivors of their independence. They now have to rely on others to do things for them, and this can be extremely frustrating, especially for those who saw their own autonomy as a defining characteristic of their individuality.

Cancer treatment and the follow up to it is a new experience, and it can be difficult dealing with the length of time that it takes to recover. Many individuals become agitated with themselves, and in turn with those around them, because they may have expected to get back on their feet much faster than their actual recovery allows them. They may still have to depend on others to assist them with perhaps what used to be simple chores, such as doing the shopping or cooking for the family.

This loss of independence can be one of the most difficult changes that one goes through. However, learning to rely on others can also bring people closer together. Sometimes, acknowledging that you can’t do everything you used to be able to can also free you from feeling like you have to do literally everything yourself.

Family Roles

Dealing with cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery can be devastating for the family as a whole. Each individual has to deal with their own fears, uncertainties, and the potential loss of a beloved family member. As a result, each family member will likely have their own way of dealing with the changes that are going on. This can cause some people to draw closer – or it can cause them to pull further away.

No matter what happens, it’s important for all members of the family – including the cancer survivor – to recognize that everyone has their own way of processing what’s happening. Everyone should be free to cope with it in their own way, while at the same time being able to express their fears, frustrations, and other emotions openly and honestly.

Many times family members have to take on the responsibilities and assume the roles that the cancer survivor previously took care. This may be short term or long term. It is important that all members of the family can discuss their feelings with each other in a constructive way so that they can each understand what they are feeling and thinking.

As with the loss of independence, it may be important for a cancer survivor to give up some of their roles and responsibilities within the family. Other family members feel helpless; however, by taking up tasks previously taken care of by the survivor, those family members can help contribute to the healing process.


Cancer can be just as difficult, in different ways, for partners as for survivors. This is a time in life where the cancer survivor really needs the support and love of their partner, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.Survivors have their own emotions and thoughts to deal with, and they may not realize the extent to which their partner is going through their own gamut of emotions as well. Partners of cancer survivors often experience their own fear, anxiety, depression, and even anger over the situation.

Each individual will display these emotions differently. Some partners may seem to be agitated more often, or they may withdraw from the cancer survivor. This may look as though they are indifferent or don’t care or can’t cope. It can cause an extreme amount of strain on the relationship, but being able to understand the emotions of each other during this time – and talking about them together – can actually make the relationship stronger, so that going forward they can deal with it together.


Some friendships can be even stronger than family relationships, which means that reactions to cancer from friends can also be stronger in some ways. In some cases, friends may become over bearing by trying to do too much. Others may go to the other extreme, becoming distant and not wanting to socialize or visit the survivor.

In many cases, friends may simply not know what to say or how to act. This can be really difficult for the survivor, who really just wants to be treated the same as they were before the cancer. Not being afraid to talk about the cancer with friends, and allowing them to talk about it with you, will often break the ice, allowing everyone to feel more comfortable.

Survivorship also opens up opportunities to make new friendships. Often, cancer survivors will come together either in groups or make friends with each other because of their common experience related to their cancer diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship. There is the ability to be supportive and can truly understand what each is experiencing. These friendships often turn out to last a lifetime.

Fostering a Collaborative Perspective

No matter how your various roles may change, whether you are a survivor or the friend, partner, or family member of a survivor, the most important thing to remember is that everyone is in the situation together. Working together to find the best way to work through role changes in a way that respects each other’s contributions, while also acknowledging any new limitations, is ultimately going to lead to the most effective way of dealing with the role changes that are an inevitable part of cancer survivorship.