Telling your friends and family
You may worry about how your family or friends will react. Will they withdraw from you? Will they blame you? Or you may worry that talking about the cancer could make things worse. You may feel guilty about the effect of the cancer and its treatment on the lives of your family and friends.
Some people also feel guilty because they think they have caused the cancer themselves in some way. However, in most cases it’s not clear what’s caused someone’s cancer. There is no reason to blame yourself.
Although some of your family and friends may find it difficult to talk about your cancer, the best way to overcome this difficulty is often by talking. Even so, it’s not always easy telling family and friends about your illness. You may feel that you don’t know where to start, but these tips may be helpful:
Try to get the setting right. Make sure the television is turned off, the room is quiet, you are sitting comfortably and you can see each other’s face easily.
Introduce the subject gradually. Rather than just saying you have cancer straight away, you could say something like, ‘This is going to be difficult, but I need to tell you something.’
If your situation is worrying but sounds as though it will be alright in the long term, you may want to say something like, ‘I’ve had some bad news, but there’s a good chance that everything will be okay after I’ve had treatment’.
Tell them in the way that feels best for you. There’s no easy way to tell other people you have cancer. Sometimes it’s easier to give the news over the telephone, through a letter or by email rather than face-to-face. For some people that may be the only option if you’re a long distance away.
Ask what they already know. If you think your relative or friend is already aware of what has been happening, then it can be useful to ask them what they already know so you don’t have to repeat information. You could say, ‘You probably know some of this already, so if you tell me what you know then I can add to it’.
Give the information in small chunks. Start with a few sentences and check every now and then that the other person understands what you’re saying before you carry on. You can ask things like, ‘Does that make sense?’ or, ‘Is that clear?’
There will often be silences - don’t be put off by them. You, or your relative or friend, may sometimes find that you don’t know what to say. Just sitting together in the same room and perhaps holding hands can often say more than any words. If you find that a silence makes you feel uncomfortable, the easiest way to break it is with simple questions such as, ‘What are you thinking about?’
Say what you need to say. When you tell someone close to you that you have a serious illness, they may feel very upset. You may want to be positive and cheerful to make them feel better. This is fine if your situation looks okay.
But if you’re really worried about the future, don’t hide this from them to protect their feelings. They’ll want to know so they can support you.
Be truthful. The truth may be painful for your relative or friend. However, it’s better for them to know the truth than find out the seriousness of your situation later on, which can lead to them feeling hurt. Tell your relatives or friends if things seem uncertain and it’s difficult to know whether your treatment will be successful. This will help them understand your situation and support you better.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help with telling others. After telling someone close to you about your cancer, it’s normal to feel you need more time before talking about it with other relatives or friends. You may want to ask someone you’ve told if they can let others know your news. This will save you having to repeat information that you may find too difficult and emotional to talk about. If your close relative or friend is happy to do this, you can let them know what information you’re happy for them to share.
These tips can help make a difficult conversation a bit easier. Talking about your situation can help your friends to support you in the future, and may also help you to not feel so alone. The act of talking can also make you feel better as though a ‘weight has been lifted off you’, even if nothing has changed.
Other people’s attitudes
Many people have written or talked about their cancer experiences, and cancer is discussed in magazines, on radio and television programmes, and on the internet. Most people are aware of improvements in cancer treatments and know that many cancers can be cured. This means that, in general, cancer isn’t as frightening as it used to be.
However, when it comes to the people you want to talk to, you may worry that they feel uncomfortable talking about your cancer. And of course, you may be right – some people still do find it very difficult to talk about cancer. Sometimes their thoughts about cancer may be based on how things were in the past, when cancer treatments were less effective.
They may only be able to talk about helpful and positive things, while you may feel that you need to talk about your fears. Your family and friends may have no idea what to say, but may feel that, somehow, they ought to know. They may know that they want to help you, and may think there’s a ‘magic formula’ they can use that will make you feel better, but they don’t know what it is. So, because they don’t know what to say, they may avoid you altogether or simply say very little. This can be hurtful and disappointing. Our section on responding to other people has some suggestions for dealing with this situation.
You may find that some family members or friends go into denial and that they cope with the situation by pretending that it’s not happening. Again, this can be upsetting when you need their support. After a while, their feelings may change and they’ll then be able to talk to you. However, if this doesn’t happen, you may have to accept that this is their way of dealing with the situation. You may need to look to other people for the support you need.
Lack of experience
Many people have no experience of talking to, or supporting, someone with cancer. They may be unsure of what you want and need, and may not know how to ask you. They may also be too embarrassed to ask if they think they should already know. It’s not your family’s or friends’ fault if they feel uncomfortable or unable to talk to you. It may just be that they’re afraid of getting things wrong or making things harder for you. Try to be clear with them about how they can best support and help you.
Fear of your reaction
Your family or friends may also worry about how you’ll react if they bring up the subject of your cancer. They may think they won’t know what to do if you cry or get upset. It can be difficult to talk about cancer for all these reasons. But, if you’re open and able to talk about your situation and feelings, you can let people know what support you need.
You’ll learn to assess different people’s reactions, and to focus on relatives and friends who are willing to talk to you and are able to be supportive. With people who find it hard to discuss your illness or who react in a way that isn’t helpful, you may just want to talk about everyday issues. This can also be useful as it gives you time to talk about things other than cancer.
We have a section about being there for someone with cancer. It looks at some of the difficulties people may have when talking about cancer and suggests ways of overcoming them.