Telling your family and friends you have cancer

Telling your friends or family that you have cancer can be difficult. But once people close to you know, they can support you and you may not feel so alone.

To begin with you may choose to tell the people you are closest to. After this you might want to make a list of people to tell. You can ask someone you trust to tell some people for you. Tell them what information you want to share.

Before telling someone about the cancer, think about what you want them to know. It’s best to have the conversation when neither of you will be interrupted and you both have time to talk. Break the news gradually a few sentences at a time. Give the other person time to take in what you’ve said and check they understand. Don’t be afraid of silences. Just sitting together or holding hands can often say more than words. Try to be honest. If you are unsure about some things its fine to say that.

If family and friends offer support and can help don’t try to cope alone.

Talking to family and friends

Telling family and friends about a cancer diagnosis can be difficult. Although you may feel very alone at this time, it’s important to remember the cancer also affects them.

They will be worried about you because you are an important part of their life. They may also be concerned about the changes you may have to make to your working life or education, and the financial impact of this.

You may worry about how your family or friends will react. Will they withdraw from you? Will they blame you? You may feel guilty about the effect of the cancer and its treatment on the lives of your family and friends.

Some people feel guilty because they think they have caused the cancer themselves in some way. In most cases it’s not clear what’s caused someone’s cancer. There is no reason to blame yourself.

We have extra advice on relationships and sexuality.


Taking someone to hospital appointments

Having someone come with you to hospital appointments can make conversations with family and friends much easier. It gives your partner, family member or friend a chance to ask questions directly to the doctor and take notes of important information.

If you are feeling shocked or upset, you may struggle to do these things for yourself. This can lead to frustrations when trying to tell other people. When someone comes with you, there is less pressure on you to answer questions and repeat what your doctor has said. The person who came with you can also tell anyone else you would like to know.


Telling family and friends about the cancer

If you have told your family and close friends you have been going for cancer tests, they may be waiting to hear the results. This may make you feel under pressure. You may feel forced into talking about the cancer before you are ready. If this is the case, it can help to tell your family and friends you need some time for the news to sink in before you are ready to talk about it in detail. We have more information if you don’t want to talk.

People usually tell their spouse or partner first, then other family and close friends. It’s also important to tell any children you have, which might require more preparation depending on their ages.

Other family members or friends may say nothing because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing. You may have to bring the subject up.

Before the conversation:

  • Make a list of who you want to talk to in person.
  • Take a notepad to make a note of questions that come up so you can ask your healthcare team.
  • Think about how much you want to share in the first conversation. You may want to tell them the kind of cancer you have and which treatments you may need. If you don’t feel ready to talk any more at this stage, you can say you need a break and you will talk more at a later time.
  • 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.

Practical tips for the first conversation

Introduce the subject gradually.

You should do this in a way that comes most naturally to you. But if you are struggling to find the words, you could try saying something such as:

  • ‘This is going to be difficult, but I need to tell you something.’
  • ‘I’ve had some bad news, but there’s a good chance that everything will be okay after I’ve had treatment.’
  • ‘You know I’ve been feeling unwell for a while. I’ve had some tests and they’ve found out what’s wrong.’

Tell them in the way that feels best for you.

Sometimes it’s easier to give the news over the telephone, through a letter or by email rather than face-to-face. It may be the only option if you’re a long distance away.

Ask what they already know and add to it.

This can prevent you from repeating information.

Give the information in small chunks.

Start with a few sentences and check the other person understands what you’re saying before you carry on. You can ask things such as, ‘Does that make sense?’

Don’t worry about silences.

You, your family member or friend may sometimes not know what to say. Holding hands, hugging or just sitting together can often say more than any words. If you find a silence makes you feel uncomfortable, break it with a simple question such as, ‘What are you thinking about?’

Say what you need to say.

You may want to be positive and cheerful to make your family member or friend feel better. This is fine if your situation looks okay. But if you’re really worried about the future, it’s important they know so they can support you.

Be truthful.

It’s better for your family and friends to know the truth than find out the seriousness of your situation later on. This can lead to them feeling hurt and upset that they haven’t been there for you. 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 support you better.

Accept and ask for support.

Family and friends will often offer their support. Don’t try to cope alone if they can help. If you cannot think of anything at that moment, thank them and tell them you may come back to them at a later date. If they haven’t offered support, don’t be afraid to ask. See below for tips on asking for support.

Ask for help to tell others.

Explaining the cancer diagnosis to people can be exhausting. You can choose someone you trust to tell more distant family members or friends. 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.

When I was diagnosed, I was lucky to have a really good friend who just let me talk all evening.

Anne


How family and friends might react

It can be difficult to deal with other people’s emotions and reactions to the news you have cancer. Some people around you may find it difficult to accept the news. They may:

  • not know what to say
  • avoid you
  • tell you, ‘Don’t worry – everything will be okay’
  • refuse to let you talk about your fears and say, ‘That isn’t going to happen.’

Or they may respond strongly and:

  • push you to talk when you aren’t ready
  • try to make decisions for you or argue about your decisions
  • be overly emotional.

We have more information and practical tips on dealing with the reactions of other people.

We also have information for relatives and friends of people with cancer. It looks at some of the difficulties people may have when talking about cancer and suggests ways of overcoming them.


Asking family and friends for support

Here are some tips that might help when you are asking your family and friends for support.

Tell the person that you want to talk about the cancer. This lets your listener know that what follows is important to you.

  • Think about which issues are most important to you. You may feel as though there’s a lot on your mind, but when you focus your thoughts you might find that there are only two or three things that you really want to discuss.
  • If you can, try to tell the person about what in particular is worrying you. You may find it easier to narrow down what’s worrying you by taking the conversation in stages. You could start by saying something general, such as, ‘I’m worried about how things are at the moment.’ This can make it easier to then focus on particular problems.
  • Say if you’ve been worrying about something a lot. This lets the person listening to you know how important the issue is to you and they can focus on that.
  • Asking the other person if they understand may help you feel listened to. You could use any phrase you like to do this, such as, ‘Do you see what I mean?’ or, ‘Does that make sense to you?’ If you’ve agreed for some things to be done, you may also want to sum up what’s been said at the end of the conversation.
  • It’s okay to go back to small talk. You don’t have to discuss serious issues all the time. Just chatting about everyday things can also help you feel that normal life still goes on.

We have a tool that may be useful to note down the areas in your life where you want support. We’ve included one example on the tool.

The table is taken from the website thinkaboutyourlife.org, which was developed by cancer survivors. The website has examples, stories and support to help you use the tool.

You can download a PDF of the tool.

Back to If you have cancer

Managing your feelings

When you are diagnosed with cancer you may have many different emotions. Some of them can make talking difficult.

Talking to your partner

Cancer can affect relationships and sexuality. But there are things that can help you cope if you are in a relationship or if you are single.