Advice on talking if you have cancer

If you have cancer talking about it can be difficult. You may feel uncomfortable about the idea of talking about the cancer or worry about losing control of your feelings.

But talking can help you cope with uncertainties and make sense of difficult situations. It may also help you:

  • feel more in control
  • feel less anxious
  • make important decisions
  • realise that your feelings are normal
  • feel supported
  • build bonds with family and friends.

You may avoid talking to family or friends about cancer because you want to protect them from upset. But people who care about you will want to help. Talking with them about the cancer and your feelings will help them feel valued.

Sometimes it is easier to talk to someone you don’t know. You could contact a support line, counsellor, support group or chat room.

There may be times when you don’t want to talk. Don’t be afraid to tell people when you would prefer to talk about other things.

Talking about cancer

After being diagnosed with cancer, you may find the idea of talking about it upsetting or uncomfortable. It may be taking you some time to come to terms with your diagnosis.

Trying to put how you are feeling into words may feel overwhelming. But talking about how you feel and what you need can help you make the right decisions and feel supported.

Many people don’t like talking about their own needs because they don’t want to seem needy, demanding or selfish. Or they may want to protect other people from being upset by their news.

However, there will often be friends and relatives who really want to help. Try starting a conversation with them and saying what you need. Even if you just want them to listen to you. You may be surprised at how willing they are to support you. By asking for someone else’s support, it shows that we value them.

It’s important to realise that there isn’t a ‘right’ way to cope with cancer. But it is important to think about which people need to know about your diagnosis and the best way to talk to them about it. This can help you to get the support you need at home, at work and from your healthcare team.


The benefits of talking

Talking can help you cope with uncertainties or difficulties that may lie ahead. It can give you support and help you have some control over your situation.

Talking may help you to:

  • Understand how you’re feeling and why. When everything is inside our heads, our thoughts often feel confusing. Putting our thoughts into words forces us to clarify what they are.
  • Express how you’re feeling. Having a lot of concerns can make our heads feel like a pressure cooker. Talking can ease the pressure and make us feel better.
  • Feel reassured that your feelings are normal. We may feel guilty, weak or ashamed for some of our thoughts or actions following a cancer diagnosis. Having someone listen to us without judgement can reassure us that our thoughts are normal. Often, this is enough to relieve many negative feelings we have towards ourselves.
  • Put things into perspective. The more we think about something, the bigger that problem can get in our minds. It can be a big relief once your emotions are out in the open.
  • Find the answer to a problem. Talking to another person can bring up solutions we have not thought of. Sometimes it just gives us the time or opportunity to think of one ourselves.
  • Make important decisions. When we have decisions to make that affect others, we often assume we know what other people are thinking or feeling. But sometimes they may surprise us with their views and help make tough decisions easier.
  • Feel more in control of your feelings and situations. Talking helps to clarify our feelings and to find solutions. This increases our confidence for dealing with further difficult issues and conversations that may arise in the future.
  • Feel more supported and less anxious. Knowing someone else understands, cares and is there for us helps reassure us that we are not going through difficult times alone.
  • Build bonds with your family and friends. People close to us want to feel that they are important to us. Talking about personal issues with them and including them in important decisions makes them feel valued.


Who can you talk to?

The best person to talk to is probably whoever you usually talk to about important issues or difficult problems. This could be anyone – your partner, your closest friend, a member of your family, a work colleague, a counsellor or a religious leader. It may be somebody who is going through a similar experience.

Family, friends and colleagues

Some people have a close circle of family and friends who can give them a lot of support. Or close relationships with work colleagues.

We have tips on telling family and friends about your diagnosis and asking for support. We also have advice on talking about cancer at work.

But even with a supportive circle of people around you, it can be difficult to talk about cancer. You may feel isolated and that only people who’ve had cancer can understand how you’re feeling. Sometimes, people find it easier to speak to someone they don’t know.

Other people may have disagreements in their family or have friends that live far away. They may work alone or not get along with people they work with. In this case, you may feel there is no one for you to talk to.

Whatever your situation, there are a number of groups, organisations and healthcare professionals that can help you.

Support helplines

You may find it helpful to contact an organisation that runs a telephone helpline service for people with cancer. These helpline services are often run by healthcare professionals.

Macmillan Support Line

You can contact the Macmillan Support Line, Monday–Friday, 9am–8pm. You can call to talk about a cancer diagnosis, to discuss money worries, for advice about work or simply for someone to listen to you talk. Our team includes:

  • cancer information support officers – they can answer your questions about cancer or treatment, or be someone to chat to
  • welfare rights advisors – they can give advice on claiming benefits
  • financial guides – they can give you guidance on financial matters including mortgages, pensions, insurance and savings.

Other support lines

If you need emotional support when our phone service is closed, you can contact the Samaritans. They offer 24-hour emotional support for anyone experiencing feelings of distress or despair. The service is confidential and non-judgemental. 

You can call Samaritans on 0845 790 9090 or email jo@samaritans.org

Counselling

It can sometimes help to talk to a counsellor, especially if you feel very low. Counsellors are trained to listen and help people talk through their problems.

They won’t give advice or answers, but will help you find your own answers. Talking one-to-one with a trained counsellor can help you sort out your feelings and find ways of coping with them. This can be very helpful, particularly if you aren’t able to discuss your feelings and emotions with people close to you. Some people find it easier to talk to people who aren’t involved with them or their care.

GP practices and hospitals often have their own counsellors or can refer you to one. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy can also give you details of counsellors in your area.

Support groups

Most areas of the UK have cancer support groups. These are usually led by people with cancer, sometimes with support from a healthcare professional. Other members of the group may be in a similar position to you. A group usually includes people with different types and stages of cancer. You may find this wider experience helps you see your own problems from a different perspective.

Our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00 can tell you about support groups in your area or you can find them on our website.

Some people find groups very helpful and form close relationships with other members. However, others get embarrassed or uncomfortable when talking about personal issues with strangers. If groups aren’t for you, don’t worry.

Online support

If you use the internet, you may want to join an online support group or chat room. There are a number of these groups and some are aimed at particular types of cancer, while others are more general. They’re easy to join and you can ‘talk’ to other people in real time. If you prefer, you can stay anonymous and just read other people’s emails or posts. These messages can be both uplifting and sad.

This can be very helpful, as you can find that other people have similar thoughts, emotions and experiences. It can make you feel less alone, and help you learn how to cope with your treatment and live with cancer. Online groups are easy to leave, without any need for personal contact or explanations.

Our online community lets you talk to people in our chat rooms, blog your experiences, make friends and join support groups. You can share your own thoughts and feelings, and get support from others.


Why talking about the cancer might be difficult

Being diagnosed with cancer is a life-changing experience for most people. It can have a huge effect on your emotions, as well as on the practical aspects of your life.

Many people used to see cancer as something that shouldn’t be talked about. But things have changed a lot, and cancer is now widely talked about in magazines, on TV and on the radio.

However, there are several reasons why talking about the cancer may be difficult:

  • You may be afraid that you’ll lose control of your feelings. Or that the person you are talking to will. Before you can talk about how you feel to other people, you may want to work out your feelings for yourself.
  • Your family and friends may find it difficult to talk about the cancer because they are struggling to accept your illness. We have more information about talking to family and friends.
  • Some people may never have had a serious illness themselves or known anyone who has. They may be unsure of what you want and need, or how to ask you. We have tips on asking family and friends for support.
  • You may be afraid of losing your job or being discriminated against at work. We have more information on talking about cancer to your employer.
  • You may feel your healthcare team are too busy to talk about your feelings. You may find our information on talking to healthcare staff helpful.
  • You may live alone or have no one close to talk to. There is advice above on who you can talk to if you don’t have family and friends nearby.


If you don’t want to talk

Some people don’t want to talk about their thoughts or feelings, or about the cancer and its treatment. They’d rather just get on with life, and find that doing normal, everyday things and not discussing the cancer is the best way for them to cope.

Dealing with family and friends

While you may not want to talk about the cancer, remember that people you care about may want to. Try to be open and honest with your family and friends. Let them know that it’s hard for you to talk and there may be a limit to how much you feel able to share.

If a family member or close friend wants to talk about the cancer when you don’t, this can cause conflict. We have tips that can help you resolve conflict in your relationships.

It is up to you how much you want to talk about your diagnosis. For example, if you’re going out to enjoy yourself with your friends, don’t be afraid to tell them that you’d rather not talk about cancer today or that you’ll bring up the issue if you want to discuss it.

However, not talking about the cancer at all can cause problems if it goes on for weeks or months – making it difficult to make decisions about treatment or your employment situation. This can delay the start of your treatment, cause financial difficulty and worsen relationships. You may find our information on denial helpful.

Back to Who should I talk to?

Your partner

Discussing concerns with your partner can help you feel supported. Allow yourselves time and privacy.

Healthcare staff

There are ways to get all the information and support you need from healthcare staff.