On this page: Should I tell others? | How do I tell others? | Other people's reactions | Helping your family adjust | When friends stay away | How do I talk to kids about cancer? | Sharing without talking | The emotions thermometer | Reviewers
Sharing news of your diagnosis can be difficult. You may feel uncomfortable talking about personal matters, or unsure how family and friends will react. You might want to protect your loved ones, but sharing the news can bring you closer together.
Sharing your anxiety and fear may also help you feel stronger. If you already communicate well with certain family members or friends, develop this bond. You may find that talking about cancer isn't as difficult as you'd first thought. Sometimes you may feel that nobody understands what you're going through. At a time when you need support, try not to shut others out.
You'll need to decide who you want to tell about the cancer diagnosis. It's up to you how much detail you give, but hiding your diagnosis probably won't work. Sooner or later, family and friends will learn that you have cancer either through changes in your appearance or by hearing it from others.
Telling others can also help prevent misunderstandings, put you in control of what information is given out and allow those who care about you to support you.
Telling different people repeatedly about a cancer diagnosis can be emotionally draining. It may help to ask a trusted friend or family member to pass on the information and then provide regular updates via weekly phone calls or emails.
Personally, I feel guilty if I vent or put my problems onto other people. But it's important to know that you're going through an extremely difficult time and that your real friends and the people that love you are strong enough to take on your negativity and feelings of worthlessness.
My friends provided an emotional support guarantee. Often when I had appointments, a friend would say, "I'll call you this evening to see how you went". That one line kept me going all day. My other friend sent me a card every round of chemo with an inspirational quote, so every three weeks I would get a card in the mail. I began to look forward to getting them and it made my cancer journey a whole lot more manageable.
Telling others about a cancer diagnosis can be difficult but a little preparation can help:
Sometimes you may come up against reactions from family and friends that seem insensitive or uncaring. Some people may avoid or withdraw from you, some may appear too positive or make light of your situation. These reactions may make you feel hurt, angry or frustrated. Try not to take their reactions as a sign that they don't care. It may be that they need more time to take in your diagnosis before they're ready to face it.
'People usually don't mean to make things worse. Their reactions are likely to come from their own difficulties in handling feelings such as fear and anxiety, or from uncertainty about what to do or say.' — Dani
Cancer is difficult for everyone it affects. Your family also needs to adjust to the diagnosis. Family members may deal with their feelings in a different way to you. Your family may experience similar anxieties and need as much information, support and advice as you. Family members might express their own fear about the diagnosis, at the possibility of losing you, and at their inability to do anything about the disease.
They may also worry about how the illness will change their lives. It might help family members having difficulty dealing with your diagnosis to contact a counsellor. A Cancer Council nurse can help you find a counsellor or psychologist.
Cancer can change friendships. Some friends handle it well; others cut off all contact. Friends stay away for different reasons. They may not be able to cope with their feelings or they may not know how to respond to changes in your appearance. Your friends may still care for you, even if they stay away.
If you think that awkwardness rather than fear is keeping a friend from visiting, call them to ease the way. Remember that you can't always know or understand all the reasons why some people avoid you. You may find that talking about your illness helps everyone cope with it better.
When you're diagnosed with cancer, one of your concerns might be telling your children, grandchildren or other young people in your life. Some parents avoid telling their children they have cancer. Children usually sense that something is wrong even if they don't know what it is.
When not told what's going on, children may imagine the worst. They may also find out from someone else, leaving them feeling angry and confused. Children often benefit from an open and honest approach. With planning, practice and support from family or health professionals, most people are able to talk to kids about cancer.
Children might have difficulty coping with cancer in the family. Their parent or family member might look different, be in hospital, or confined to bed. And their own daily routines may be upset.
These changes can sometimes be frightening for children, and can affect their behaviour. Young children may become insecure and refuse to leave your side or behave badly to get attention. Older children may retreat or become much closer to the person with cancer. It's natural to wonder if behavioural changes are normal or a result of the cancer. Talk to a health professional if your child or teenager's behaviour changes significantly. Call Cancer Council on 13 11 20 for a free copy of Talking to Kids About Cancer.
Sometimes you'll switch between wanting to talk about things and wanting to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings. It's okay to say no – whether it's discussing your personal concerns or an offer of help that you don't wish to accept. At times when you don't feel up to taking phone calls or seeing visitors, it can be helpful for your partner or another family member to act as a gatekeeper and handle enquiries or rearrange calls or visits to more suitable times.
Your own physical health and emotions could fluctuate during and after your treatment. Sometime it's hard to let your friends and family know how you're feeling and they may find it hard to ask.
If you're having trouble talking about how you feel, you can try sharing your feelings without talking by keeping a journal, or blog. Some people keep two journals, one private and one to share with others. You could be creative through making music, drawing or doing crafts.
Use an emotions thermometer to show those close to you how you're feeling each day. See below for an example.
'Art therapy let me verbalise my inner thoughts. It's often easier to discuss something that you've created than to lay open your life and feel exposed.' — Veronica
An emotions thermometer is a simple tool that allows you to show how you're feeling every day. You can make one yourself and if you have kids, ask them to help.
Decide on the feelings you want on the thermometer, for example, stress, fear, anger or sadness. Put it up in a place where everyone can see it, such as the fridge. Attach a pointer, like a magnet that can be moved each day to indicate how you're feeling.
Reviewers: Dr Lisbeth Lane, Senior Clinical Psychologist, University of Wollongong, Wollongong Hospital, NSW; Kim Hobbs, Social Worker, Gynaecological Oncology, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Dr Megan Best, Palliative Care Physician, Greenwich Hospital, NSW; Deborah Ball, Coordinator of Direct Support Services, Cancer Council SA; Sandy Hutchison, Executive Manager, Cancer Counselling Service, Cancer Council QLD; Jill Adams, RN, Helpline, Cancer Council WA; and Ksenia Savin, Cancer Connect Volunteer and Consumer, QLD.