It can be difficult to tell people you have cancer. You may feel uncomfortable talking about personal matters, or unsure how your partner, family or friends will react. Although you might want to protect the people you care about, sharing the news can often bring you closer together.
It’s up to you how much detail to share, when to share it and who to share it with, but hiding your diagnosis may be hard work. Sooner or later, people will often find out – they may hear about it from others or notice changes in your appearance.
Letting people know about the diagnosis in your own way has several advantages. It can help prevent misunderstandings, puts you in control of what information is given out and when, and allows people to offer support.
At times, it may feel like nobody understands what you’re going through. Try not to shut others out – you may find that talking about cancer is not as difficult as you had first thought.
How to tell family and friends
When you feel ready, decide who to tell and what to say. To prepare for these conversations, you could:
- choose a quiet time and place, if possible
- ask your partner or another close support person to be with you when you are telling others
- think of answers to likely questions (but only answer if you want to – you don’t have to share every detail)
- accept that the person you are telling may get upset – you may find yourself comforting them, even though you are the one with cancer
- get help finding the right words – for example, you could meet with the hospital social worker or call 13 11 20 to talk through what you might say.
Speak to a cancer nurse
Other people's reactions
The reactions from your family and friends will depend on many factors, including their previous experience of cancer and their own coping styles. Sometimes, people respond in ways that may make you feel hurt, angry or frustrated. Give your family and friends time to adjust to the diagnosis. After the initial shock, most people will be supportive.
Reactions from your loved ones may include:
- becoming very distressed – people often have a strong emotional reaction to the word 'cancer', but they may not be aware that cancer treatments and outcomes are improving all the time.
- saying the wrong thing – people often don’t know what to say. They may appear too positive or make light of your situation, or they may even say something tactless or ill-informed. Try not to take their initial reactions as a sign that they don’t care. They may need as much information, support and advice as you do. They might be fearful of losing you, frustrated they can’t do anything about the disease, or worried about how the illness will change their life.
- giving unhelpful advice – in their eagerness to help, people might offer confusing advice or want you to try new 'miracle cures' that aren’t evidence-based. Let them know that you are making treatment decisions based on discussions with your medical team. Explain that every cancer is different and you need to follow the advice of experts.
- withdrawing from you – some friends may seem to avoid you. They might feel like they can’t cope with what you’re going through. If you think not knowing what to say is stopping a friend visiting you, you could call them to put them at ease. You may find that talking openly about the illness and treatment helps everyone.
How to manage misunderstandings
After a cancer diagnosis, communication becomes even more important in your relationships. If you feel hurt by the reaction of someone close to you, a conversation may help clear the air:
- make time to talk, and don’t wait for the 'right' time – it may never come
- be honest about what you are thinking and feeling
- focus on understanding each other – at least at first, this can be more important than trying to solve the problem
- really listen to what the other person is trying to say and try to understand where they are coming from.
In some cultures, cancer may be seen as contagious, sent to test you, caused by bad luck or always fatal. People may not want to talk about it openly and may not want to use the word 'cancer'. If it is hard to talk about cancer within your community, try approaching a community leader to help you, or call 13 11 20 for confidential support.
Talking to kids about cancer
When you are diagnosed with cancer, one of your concerns might be how to tell any young people in your life. Talking to young kids and teenagers about cancer can feel difficult and overwhelming. Research shows that when someone close is diagnosed with cancer, children usually cope better if they are told about it, in a way that suits their age and stage of development.
With planning, practice and support from family or health professionals, most parents and other adults are able to talk to kids about cancer. If you have children, your treatment team can set up an appointment just for them to ask questions.
Ways to share how you're feeling
Your own physical health and emotions are likely to change during and after cancer treatment. It may be hard to let your friends and family know how you’re feeling, and they may find it hard to ask.
Decide how much to share
Sometimes you will switch between wanting to talk about what’s going on and wanting to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings. It's okay to say no – whether it's about discussing your personal concerns or in response to an offer of help.
Choose a key contact
Repeating the same information to everyone in your network can be draining, and you may not always feel up to phone calls or visitors. It can be helpful for one carer, family member or friend to act as the main point of contact. They can answer inquiries, monitor calls, or keep visits to more suitable times.
If you are having trouble expressing how you are feeling, you could try keeping a journal or blog, or you may prefer to make music, draw, paint or craft. You can choose whether to share your writing or artworks with those close to you or to keep them for yourself.
You could leave a message on your voicemail or answering machine giving a quick update, send text messages or emails, or share the latest news through social media, such as a closed WhatsApp or Facebook group.
Emotions and Cancer
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Expert content reviewers:
A/Prof Anne Burke, Co-Director, Psychology and Allied Health Lead, Cancer, Central Adelaide Local Health Network and The University of Adelaide, SA; Hannah Chen, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland; Hazel Everett, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Cancer Services, St John of God Subiaco Hospital, WA; Shona Gates, Senior Social Worker, North West Cancer Centre, TAS; Dr Jemma Gilchrist, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Mind My Health and Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre, Westmead, NSW; Sandra Hodge, Consumer; Dr Michael Murphy, Psychiatrist and Clinician Researcher, Prince of Wales Hospital, NSW; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Dr Alesha Thai, Medical Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Alan White, Consumer.
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The information on this webpage was adapted from Emotions and cancer - A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends (2021 edition). This webpage was lasted updated in March 2022.