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The others in your life

It can be difficult to tell people you have cancer. You may feel uncomfortable talking about personal matters, or unsure how family and 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 and when to share it, but hiding your diagnosis probably won't work. Sooner or later, family, friends and colleagues will find out that you have cancer, either by hearing about it from others or through changes in your appearance. Telling people can help prevent misunderstandings, put you in control of what information is given out, and allow 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
  • 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 – in some cases, 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 Cancer Council 13 11 20 to talk through what you might say.
"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

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. These may include:

Becoming very distressed

People often have a strong emotional reaction to the word "cancer", but they may not be aware that 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 may even say something inappropriate 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 lives.

Giving unhelpful advice

In their keenness 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 keeping a friend from visiting, call them to ease the way. You may find that talking openly about the illness and treatment helps everyone.

Give your family and friends time to adjust to the diagnosis. After the initial shock, most people will be supportive.

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:

  • find time to talk. Don't wait for the "right" time – it may never come
  • be honest about what you are thinking and feeling, even if it is upsetting, focus on understanding each other – at least initially, this is 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, you could call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for another source of confidential support.

Ways to share how you're feeling

Your own physical health and emotions could change during and after your treatment. It may be hard to let your friends and family know how you're feeling, and they may find it hard to ask. Sometimes you will switch between wanting to talk about what's going on and wanting to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings. It is okay to say no – whether it is about discussing your personal concerns or in response to an offer of help.

Repeating the same information to everyone in your network can be draining, and you may not always feel up to taking phone calls or seeing visitors. It can be helpful for one family member or friend to act as the main point of contact. They can answer enquiries, monitor calls, or keep visits to more suitable times. You could also leave a message on your voicemail or answering machine giving a quick update; send text messages or emails; or share updates through social media, such as a closed Facebook group or apps.

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.

Telling children

When you are diagnosed with cancer, one of your concerns might be how to tell your children, grandchildren or other young people in your life. Talking to young kids or teenagers about cancer can feel difficult and overwhelming.

"Sooner or later they were going to find out. Why not tell them straightaway? I tell them frankly what is happening. I think they find it much easier to cope because they are ready for things." - Susie

Parents and other adults can feel overcome by their own anxiety and fears, and their first impulse may be to protect children from feeling these same strong emotions. Some parents avoid telling their children they have cancer. Others wait until treatment starts and side effects, such as hair loss or nausea, are noticeable.

Most children sense that something is wrong even if they don't know what it is. When they are not told what is going on, children may imagine the worst. They may also find out from someone else, and this may leave them feeling angry and confused.

When someone close to them is diagnosed with cancer, children usually cope better if they are told in a way that is appropriate for 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.

Older children may worry about burdening you with how they are feeling, so make sure they have a trusted person outside the immediate circle who they can talk to about the situation. See Talking to Kids About Cancer and Explaining Cancer to Kids podcast for ways to tell children and how to help them cope at different stages.

Expert content reviewers:

Dr Anna Hughes, Liaison Psychiatrist and Psycho-oncologist, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Mary Bairstow, Senior Social Worker, Cancer Centre, Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA; Anita Bamert, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; Kate Barber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria, VIC; Sally Carveth, Assistant Coordinator, Cancer Support Leader Program, Cancer Council NSW; Matt Featherstone, Consumer; Dr Charlotte Tottman, Clinical Psychologist, Allied Consultant Psychologists and Flinders University, SA; Shirley Witko, Senior Social Worker, Comprehensive Cancer Centre, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA.

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