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Cancer - living with it

cancer; tumour; malignant; benign; treatment;


Almost all of the people who get cancer are adults, and mostly they are older adults. But sometimes children and young people get cancer. This topic is written for young people who have cancer, or who have a friend or close relative with cancer.


Now what 
Now What has been developed by CanTeen, the Australian Organisation for Young People Living with Cancer. Now What has been developed by a team of people including CanTeen staff and young people whose lives have been affected by cancer.

Victorian Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Service 

Cancer and feelings

‘Cancer’ is a very scary word - it makes us think of people losing their hair and being sick all of the time. We often think of someone with cancer as having a death sentence.

The following are some of the feelings that you might have if you learn that you have, or someone you know has cancer. It is important to remember that people react differently. You may not have all these feelings, and you will probably feel things that are not in this list. How you feel is a natural process of grief and not a sign that you are "going crazy".

  • Denial, shock or disbelief. "It hasn't really happened", "This isn't real.", "I must be dreaming." This is a kind of temporary relief which protects you from getting completely taken over by fear.
  • Questions, questions, questions. You try to make sense of the news. These might be related to feelings of guilt - "Why didn't I….?", "If only I had…", "I should have…" or confusion - "What is going on?", "I don't understand…."
  • Anxiety and despair. You might ask about the future - "What will I do?", "How will I cope?" - or you might have a fear of losing control.
  • Anger. Anger comes from other feelings, like feeling abandoned, hurt or scared. You might direct your anger at people close to you - they in turn may express it back. It can be an expression of sadness and outrage, at the thoughts of losing one another. If a family member has cancer, we may even feel anger at the fact that they are getting all the attention.
  • Crying, sobbing, depression. Sadness might feel like a black cloud over your whole world. You might lose interest in life - you don't want to go out, or do things you usually do. You might feel loneliness if you cut yourself off, or feel you have no one to turn to.
  • Afraid. Sometimes people can be scared that they may be able to some how "catch" cancer. This may make them act strangely and be unsure around a person with cancer. Cancer can not be passed on to another person. This is a myth. If you find you are afraid of someone you know with cancer, it may be a good idea to read up a bit about the subject, or talk to your doctor.
  • Embarrassed. Physical appearance can change through hair loss, scars, gaining weight on some of the drugs, or losing weight because of other treatments.
  • Rushed. It can often seem that time is getting away from us.
  • Reduced tolerance. A reduced tolerance for the problems of others - "what have they got to complain about?"

People can even feel nothing, and become withdrawn from their friends and family. Feeling nothing is an important and natural way of protecting yourself from overwhelming fear and other emotions. If friends and family members know this, they can back off a bit and not feel so rejected and helpless.

Talking about cancer

It can seem at times that all you ever think about is the cancer.

  • If someone you know has cancer you worry about him or her a lot of the time.
  • If you have cancer, you probably think about it most of the day.
  • If you are thinking about cancer all the time, the last thing you probably want to do is talk about it.

The problem is, that if we keep all our pain and thoughts to ourselves, we can make ourselves feel worse.

When people treat you differently

People go though so many emotions when they find out someone has cancer. They already have ideas and mental images, which come into their mind when they hear the news. This leads to them seeing the person in a different light. At times you may feel this. Relationships change. People treat others differently. 

It is important to remember this has nothing to do with you; it is simply how they choose to deal with cancer.

  • Some people go into denial. That is, they pretend everything is normal and try to put on a brave face.
    • This may seem helpful at first, but false smiles and well wishes are no good if they are not real.
    • If a person is not close to you, maybe it is better to go along with their denial. It could be less stressful for you.
  • Some friends may abandon you.
    • Cancer touches everyone differently and some feel they just cannot handle it.
    • They may feel they could make things worse by saying the wrong thing.
    • They may still think that they can catch cancer from you.
  • Sometimes people will try to do too much for you.
    • They may intrude a little.
    • It is up to you who you talk to about your feelings.
    • If you feel some people are not good for you at this time, tell you family or good friends. They may be able to work out ways of keeping those you do not wish to see away.
  • Family and friends may become too much to handle.
    • They mean well, but too much love can smother you.
    • It is best to just let them know how you feel. If you want to be alone they will learn to understand.
    • They might even try to stop you doing things, such as going out with friends, because they want to protect you too much.
    • Other people such as kids who have also had cancer may be able to give you ideas about coping with overprotection.

Cancer and life changes

Many people find that cancer opens them up to new experiences. Cancer can act like a wake up call. Some people find that their lives change for the better after getting cancer, but this does not always happen.

Going through the stages of diagnosis, treatment and recovery can become a period of personal growth. People find a new lease of life and sometimes a new level of spirituality. It can even seem as though they were happy to have gotten cancer, because of the changes it has made to their lives.

However, it is not this way for everyone, and cancer is not a pleasant way to make life changes.

Remember – cancer does not control you. There may be a large amount that has changed in your life, but your identity has not changed. A positive attitude is important. If you are having a bad day, let it go, move on to tomorrow.

Finding out about cancer can be a very lonely experience. It can also create an opportunity for good life changes. It depends on how you act and who you have to support you. It is important to remember that there is help available and people do care.

Josh says:

"Cancer is such a scary word that many people have trouble getting past the word. Cancer in relation to yourself starts off being terrifying. Learning to live with it, until hopefully you have beaten it, takes a lot of courage and positive thinking. Take all the help that is offered and try to understand if some friends are uncertain how to behave towards you. Let them know you are still you and want to be treated just the same as always".


South Australia


Further reading

Cancer Council of Australia:

National Cancer Institute (USA):


Nemours Foundation. 'My friend has cancer. How can I help?'

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
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