My friend has cancer

Finding out your friend has cancer can make you feel worried. Here are some answers to questions people often ask and some ideas of what you can do to support your friend.

Is my friend going to be OK?

Everyone with cancer reacts differently to treatment, but the kind of cancers that affect children are usually treated successfully, and most children get better.

Can I catch cancer?

No. Cancer can't be passed on like a cold or flu. You can spend as much time with your friend as you want, it won't give you cancer.

What causes cancer?

It's very unusual for children to get cancer, and very little is known about what causes it. The types of cancer that children and young people get are mostly different to those affecting adults. Find out what cancer is.

Why does my friend look different?

Your friend may look different because of their cancer treatment.

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy kill more than just cancer cells, they destroy other fast-growing cells, such as hair cells. Your friend might lose their hair but once treatment is finished it usually grows back.

Your friend might also put on or lose weight because of their treatment. Their nurses and doctors will help them to manage this.

Cancer treatment can be tough and your friend may also look more tired or pale than usual. You can help your friend by being there to listen and offer support.

How is cancer treated?

There are three main types of treatment: chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. Your friend may be having one of these, or a combination:

  • Chemotherapy is a very strong medicine that kills cancer cells. Your friend may take this as a tablet, liquid, injection or through a drip.
  • Radiotherapy is a type of X-ray which kills cancer cells where the cancer is, while doing as little harm as possible to other cells.
  • Surgery means having an operation in hospital. If your friend has a lump or tumour they may need a small operation called a biopsy first (when doctors remove a small piece of tumour to find out more about it and decide how to treat it).

Treatment can sometimes last for as long as two or three years and your friend may be in and out of hospital.

Freyja and Addie

Does treatment hurt?

These treatments don't hurt, but they're not very nice. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy may cause side effects such as sore skin, sickness, tiredness or hair loss. If your friend needs surgery they'll have a general anaesthetic and will probably be given painkillers afterwards.

If they're having chemotherapy, they may receive treatment through a portacath or central line. If they're having radiotherapy, they'll have to keep totally still for a few minutes while the treatment is given.

Why is there a tube going into my friend's body?

Your friend may need to take lots of different medicines so the doctor may give them a central line, a small tube inserted into their chest with the end just outside the skin. This allows medicine to be put into their bloodstream and can be used for taking blood tests.

Having a line isn't painful, though your friend will need to be careful. They may not be able to go swimming or do contact sports such as football and rugby.

Why does my friend have a tube going up their nose?

If your friend's cancer or treatment is making it difficult for them to eat or drink, they may have an NG (nasogastric tube) so that they can have liquid food. Liquid medicines can also be given through the tube.

What is it like in hospital?

Your friend may spend long periods of time in hospital. They'll be able to do lots of normal things there, like watching television, using computers and playing video games.

Most hospitals also have a schoolroom, so your friend can keep up to date with school work. Some schoolrooms also have Skype.

Why don't I see my friend often?

Your friend may sometimes feel weak, sick or tired from the effects of their treatment. They might not go to school or they might go part-time, or on the days or weeks in-between treatment sessions. Children and young people with cancer tell us that going to school is important as it helps keep things feeling normal.

Sometimes your friend might not want visitors at home or in hospital. This might be because they are tired or feeling ill. You can show them you’re thinking of them by sending them a card, text or email.

How can I help my friend?

There's a lot you can do to support your friend during their illness. You can learn about your friend's cancer, keep in touch during their treatment, and listen when they want to talk.

Don't feel like you have to talk about their illness all the time though. Your friend is still the same person they were before, and some days they might not want to think about it and get on with the things you both like doing best.

When will my friend get better?

Your friend's recovery will depend on the kind of cancer they have, how serious it is, the treatment they need and how they react to it. Everyone is different, and your friend will react to cancer and treatment in their own individual way.

Even if they fully recover from the cancer quite quickly, it may take a while before they get back to their usual self.

Find out more

If you want to know more about what it might be like for your friend you could read 14-year old Megan Blunt's Chemotherapy, cakes and cancer, an A-Z guide to living with childhood cancer.

You can also download our factsheet for friends of children with cancer (pdf). Ask a parent or carer to read it with you.

If you are still worried

If you are worried about your friend speak to your parents, or a trusted adult so they can help you.

Reviewed March 2016, next planned review 2018.