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.
You may find that talking about cancer is not as difficult as you had 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 will need to decide who 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 find out that you have cancer either through changes in your appearance or by hearing it from others.
Telling people can also help prevent misunderstandings, puts you in control of what information is given out, and allows those who care about you to offer support.
Telling different people repeatedly about a cancer diagnosis can be emotionally draining. You may want to ask a few people to spread the news among family and friends. To avoid repeating the same details to everyone in their social network, some people use social media.
How to tell others
Telling others about a cancer diagnosis can be difficult, but a little preparation can help:
- When you feel ready, decide who to tell and what to say.
- Think of answers to possible questions, but only answer if you feel comfortable. You don’t have to share every detail.
- Choose a quiet time and place.
- Accept that the person you are telling may get upset. You may find yourself comforting them, even though you are the sick one.
- For help finding the right words, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to talk through what you might say.
- Ask family or friends to tell others for you if you don’t feel up to it.
Other people’s reactions
The reactions from your family and friends will vary. These will depend on many factors, including their previous experience of cancer. People may not be aware that treatments are improving all the time and that prognosis is improving.
People often don’t know what to say. They may appear too positive or make light of your situation, or they may avoid or withdraw from you. Friends stay away for different reasons. Sometimes it may be because they are not able to cope with what you’re going through.
After the initial shock of the diagnosis, family and friends are often supportive.
How to handle other people’s reactions
- Make time to talk. Don’t wait for the ‘right’ time – it may never come.
- Your family and friends will find it easier to be told what you need rather than having to guess. Make some specific suggestions. For example, you may like someone to drive you to appointments or keep you company at the doctors. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, ‘If they really cared, they would know what I need’. They’re not mind-readers. Be honest about what you are thinking and feeling, even if it is upsetting.
- Focus on understanding each other as this is more important, at least initially, than trying to solve the problem.
- Really listen to what the other person has to say. Put aside your own thoughts and judgements and try to understand where they are coming from.
- Talk openly about what is happening and what you need. 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 your illness and treatment helps everyone.
- Give your family and friends time to adjust to the diagnosis. They may need as much information, support and advice as you do. They might be fearful of losing you, frustrated at their inability to do anything about the disease, or worried about how the illness will change their lives.
- The reactions of others may make you feel hurt, angry or frustrated. Try not to take their reactions as a sign that they don’t care. Some people may need more time to take in the diagnosis before they are ready to face it.
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.
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.
Children usually cope better with a parent’s cancer diagnosis if they are told in a way that is suitable to their age and development. With planning, practice and support from family or health professionals, most parents and other adults are able to talk to kids about cancer. See below for ways to tell children and how to help them cope.
"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, mother of three children aged 12, 13 and 16
How to tell children
- Practise what you will say and how you will say it before talking to kids.
- Start with questions to check what the children know about cancer. This gives you the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings.
- Use language that children will understand. Younger children need simpler explanations while teenagers and young adults might ask for more details.
- Answer their questions simply and honestly.
- Try not to overload kids with too much information.
- Explain that the cancer is not their fault, and is not contagious.
- Leave kids with feelings of hope that even though you or they may be upset now, there will be better times.
- Tell other people close to your children (grandparents, friends and schoolteachers) about the diagnosis and what you plan to tell your children. If you all say similar things, your kids will hear a consistent message about cancer.
- Ask a trusted family member or friend to talk to your children about cancer, if you feel unable to discuss it yourself.
- Discuss the importance of letting the school know. It may be better to ask older primary school and high school children how they would like you to tell the school, and if they’d like to tell their friends.
- See Talking to Kids About Cancer. This will give you more tips on talking to children throughout all stages of cancer, from breaking the news about a cancer diagnosis to coping with life after treatment.
How to help children adjust
- Trying to always be upbeat in front of your children can be exhausting, so tell children if you’re tired or not feeling well. They may be relieved to know your mood is not because of something they’ve done.
- Listen and give children a chance to discuss how they’re feeling.
- Ask their schoolteacher or school counsellor to look for changes in behaviour or marks. Ask if the school has a copy of Cancer Council’s Cancer in the School Community as this may help them support your child.
- Continue the children’s usual routine as much as possible. They feel safer with a regular routine. Talk about their activities, and let them know that it’s still okay to have fun.
- Explain any changes that need to be made to the family’s lifestyle, and negotiate where possible.
- Reassure them of your love. Do things together. Read them a story, help with their homework or watch television together. Ask a relative or friend to devote extra time and attention to them.
- Tell them they will be looked after throughout your cancer treatment, even if you can’t always do it yourself.
- Expect that children will react in different ways. They may feel angry, sad or guilty. Reactions may be physical, such as bedwetting or a change in sleeping patterns.
- Suggest that teenagers talk to a trusted adult or a counsellor about how they’re feeling as they may find it hard to share this with you.
- Talk to your GP or a counsellor if the behaviour of your child or teenager changes significantly.
Ways to share how you’re feeling
Your own physical health and emotions could fluctuate during and after your treatment. Sometimes it’s hard to let your friends and family know how you’re feeling, and they may find it hard to ask.
If you are having trouble talking to others about how you’re coping, you can share the experience in the following ways:
- keep a journal or blog – some people keep two journals, one private and one to share with others
- make music, draw, paint or create craft
- show others your Distress Thermometer ratings.
It’s okay to say no
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.
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. They can handle enquiries, monitor calls, or keep visits to more suitable times.
Expert content reviewers:
Prof Jane Turner, Psychiatrist, Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, The University of Queensland, QLD; Andreea Ardeleanu, Social Worker, Cancer Counselling Service, Phillip Community Health Centre, ACT; Dr Lisa Beatty, Research Fellow, School of Psychology, Flinders University, SA; Joshua Chalmers, Consumer; Valmai Goodwin, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; Karen Hall, Clinical Nurse, Cancer Services Division, Flinders Medical Centre, and Nurse Health Counsellor, Cancer Council SA, SA; and Judith McGrath, Consumer.