Tips from a cancer survivor

25 August 2016 | Yvonne Hughes

How to help someone you know after their cancer treatment.

One Piece of Advice


I was thrilled to be asked to be a guest speaker for the Cancer Council NSW Daffodil Day inspired webinar – ‘Someone I know survived Cancer – How do I help once treatment is finished?’

I’m often asked about how to help while someone’s going through treatment, but the question about how to help afterwards rarely comes up.

Yvonne HughesIf you haven’t had firsthand experience of cancer, it’s easy to think that one of two things happen – the treatment works, or it doesn’t. If it works, then you’re classified as ‘lucky’ and generally expected to return to whatever it was you were doing before. The general public isn’t going to know about long term side effects, fear of recurrence, loss of body parts or any other survivorship issue. Well, why would they?

That’s why this was such a great webinar topic. It gave people a chance to talk about these survivorship issues. And it was a positive webinar. We didn’t ignore the downsides of cancer – because, let’s face it, the list can be extensive – but both the panel and the audience were reframing the problems into ways to help.

Even by tuning in to a topic on how to help is, in itself, a tremendous support. We talked about how we’d all been let down by a friend somewhere along the line, so that fact that so many people wanted to hear about ways to help is wonderful. Lots of people are worried that they’ll say the wrong thing – but you know what? Being there and having the willingness to support someone would more than make up for any blunders.

But if we’re going to get into specifics, here are a few things that we discussed – I’m sure they’ll resonate with many of you.


What not to say to a cancer survivor

  • Please don’t call us ‘lucky’. We know we’re lucky that we survived cancer, and we’re very aware that not everyone does. But calling us lucky somehow invalidates our right to grieve about the things that we have lost, and it puts pressure on us to ‘be positive’ when we actually have a fair bit of healing ahead of us still.
  • Please don’t tell us your horror stories. We understand that cancer is confronting, but you can let us know that you’ve had some experience of it without telling us your exact experience. Spare us the details.
  • Don’t ask us insensitive questions. No matter how curious you are. And that definitely includes: ‘Did you get a free boob job?’


I think what it comes down to, is really understanding the friend or family member who had cancer. If they’re someone you’ve known for a long time, you need to understand that the cancer experience might have changed them. That’s pretty normal, but it means that you have to get to know them as they are now.

The changes might be physical, or they might be psychological – anxiety and depression affect a lot of cancer survivors. It’s pretty common for these to be triggered by health related stresses, such as reminders of the cancer, the anniversary of the diagnosis, scans, blood tests… or even just a run of the mill headache. If you can understand your friend’s triggers, then you’ll be able to support them when they need it the most.

Going in to the webinar I was worried about how we could discuss all the differences and inconsistencies, and how ‘help’ could look very different from one person to the next. But coming out of the webinar, I was more aware of how connected we are as a group of survivors. We might not always feel this in our day to day life when we’re the only ones who have actually had cancer, but the webinar gave us all a place to connect and feel connected.


Listen to the webinar – Someone I know survived cancer 

With an estimated 1.1 million Australians either having survived or currently living with cancer, many people want to support someone they know affected by cancer but are sometimes unsure how.

This month, Cancer Council NSW hosted a free Daffodil Day inspired webinar to provide people with tips and advice from three cancer survivors, about what they wanted after their cancer treatment from their family, friends, work colleagues and employers.

Cancer Council NSW webinars are open to people of any age who have been affected by cancer, either as a patient, family member or carer and participants can log on from anywhere around Australia.

To hear more advice from other survivors about how to talk to people after cancer treatment, listen to the recorded webinar.