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Cancer - when your brother or sister has cancer

cancer; sister; brother; family; sibling; support;


When a sibling – brother or sister – gets sick, the house can be turned upside down. With something like a cold, everything usually goes back to normal after a few days. When a sibling gets cancer, the changes can be much harder to deal with, and last much longer. Everyone in the house can act differently, and you might not know your place anymore.

Some of your feelings

Here are some of the things you may feel:

  • Afraid. You can feel afraid because you think your sibling may die, or you may be afraid that you could catch cancer.
    • There are many ways to treat cancer, and new techniques are popping up every day. Just because your sibling has cancer, does not always mean they will die. But sometimes they do.
    • Cancer is not contagious. That is, you cannot catch it from your brother or sister.
  • Angry. You may feel mad because your sibling is getting all the attention.
    • You may see changes in the house that you don’t like and blame your sibling for them. This is a natural response to change.
    • Because you feel angry does not mean you don’t love your brother or sister.
  • Guilty. Getting angry at the way things have changed in the house can lead to guilt.
    • You might also feel guilty because you said or thought something mean.
    • You might feel that you caused your sibling's cancer somehow –  just remember that things you think, say or do have no effect on cancer.
    • You cannot protect your sibling from cancer.
    • If you feel bad about something you felt, said or did, then talk to you parents or sibling about it – they are probably going though new and confusing feelings as well.
  • Lonely. Sometimes friends can treat you differently because your brother or sister has cancer.
    • This can be because they worry that they could catch it, or they don’t know how to act around you or what they can talk about.
    • You may also find that you spend more time with your family, and this means not having much time for friends.
    • Try to reach out to friends. They may just surprise you.
    • This is a time of change – old friends can become new again and new friends can pop up.
    • Just remember that things will not be like this forever.

Feelings are not good or bad.

  • You should not feel that you are strange because you are going through a tough time.
  • Confused, angry and frightened feelings are normal and everyone has them.
  • If you wish them away or ignore them, they will still be there tomorrow.
  • Talking about how you feel is the best way to understand what is going on.

How to be supportive

People who are friends and family often find it very hard to know what to say or do around someone with cancer.

  • Try to be positive. Offer sympathy but only when it is appropriate. Being positive does not mean saying things you do not believe.
  • Try to keep your emotions under control. It is no good if you break down often when you are trying to be there for your sibling. Crying with your sibling or your parents, however, is a way to show you care.
  • Be open. Do not try to hide your feelings. Your sibling has probably heard and seen it all.
  • Encourage them to do the things that they should do (what their doctor has told them to do). This may include exercising with them, or even taking on their diet as a sign of support.
  • Help them to do the things that they can do - rather than only what they should do.
    • When possible, if your sibling is in hospital, go for a walk out of the hospital with him or her.
    • Go to a coffee shop, or where ever you used to hang out.
    • Sneak a pizza into the hospital if pizza has not been forbidden.
    • Your brother or sister is still the same person you knew before. Try to treat them the same.
  • Plan ways of keeping  people  who your sibling does not want to see away, and keep them in touch with those they do wish to see.
  • Listen. You do not have to come up with a solution to all their troubles. Much of the time they just want you to listen.
    • When you listen, you may find the person 'dumps' all of their feelings on you.
    • It is important to look after yourself. You won’t be much help as a support if you are getting overwelmed yourself.
    • Talking to someone after you visit can be a big help.

Bec says:

"The golden rule: Be yourself. It has been said that the biggest sign of respect  supporters can show to someone with cancer is acting the way they always did. Think about how you would feel if your friends and family started talking about you rather than to you. How would you feel if everyone started avoiding you or being really careful what they said around you instead of the usual teasing, joking stuff that you are used to?"


South Australia



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 

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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