How to tell people you have cancer
Telling family and friends about the cancer can help them support you.
Talking about your situation can help people support you. Talking can also make you feel better, as though a weight has been lifted off you, even if nothing has changed. It may also help you to feel less alone.
The tips below can help make a difficult conversation a bit easier.
During the first conversation, introduce the subject gradually
Do this in a way that is most natural to you. If you are struggling, you could try saying something like this:
- ‘This is going to be difficult, but I need to tell you something.’
- ‘You know I have been feeling unwell for a while. I have had some tests and they have found out what’s wrong.’
Tell them in the way that feels best for you
Sometimes it is easier to give the news over the phone, in a letter or by email rather than face to face. If you are telling someone who lives far away, this may be the only option.
Ask what they already know
This can stop you repeating information.
Give the information in small chunks
Say a few sentences and check the other person understands what you are saying before you carry on. You can ask things such as, ‘Does that make sense?’. Asking the other person if they understand may help you feel listened to.
Do not 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. If you are not feeling too worried about your situation, this is fine. But if you are really worried about the future, it is important they know so they can support you.
It is better for your family and friends to know the truth now, rather than find out later on. If they find out later, they may feel hurt and upset that they haven’t been able to support you.
Tell your family and friends if it is difficult to know whether your treatment will be successful. This will help them support you better.
Think about which issues are most important to you
You may feel as though there is 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.
Try to tell the person what in particular is worrying you. It may be easier to narrow this down 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.’.
Ask for help to tell others
Explaining the cancer diagnosis to people can be exhausting. You can choose someone you trust to tell other family members or friends. Let them know what information you are happy for them to share.
It is 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.
Accept and ask for support
Family and friends will often offer their support. 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. Use the tips above to help when you ask for support.
We have a tool that you may want to use to write down what support you need. We have added one example on the tool. If you feel that you need support, but do not know how others could give it, this may be a useful starting point for a conversation with people close to you.
Acknowledge their feelings
Remember that the person cares about you. But they may be struggling to accept the cancer or may not know the best way to help.
When you are trying to cope with cancer yourself, this may make you feel resentful about having to deal with their feelings. But try not to push them away or brush their feelings aside, as it is likely to make things worse.
Try to respond to their feelings
Recognising how someone feels can help to identify their emotion and what caused it. You could say things like:
- ‘When I talk about the cancer, you look really upset’
- ‘I know you are feeling very helpless and taking control is your way of coping, but…’.
Do not be afraid to say how you feel too
For example, you might say things like this:
- ‘I think both of us are finding this awful.’
- ‘I know you are worried about what could happen and so am I.’
The more aware you both are of each other’s feelings, the better the communication will be.
Try not to compete with their feelings
Reminding the other person that you feel worse can make them feel like you don’t acknowledge their feelings.
If a person is avoiding talking, gently ask them to listen
Tell them that they don’t need to respond right now, but you would just like them to listen.
Talk about everyday things
If some people find it hard to discuss your illness or 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.
Ask to have a break from talking
Ask to have a break from talking if:
- you are being forced to talk before you are ready
- you are finding the conversation difficult to deal with.
You can come back to the conversation at a later date.
Some people may not be able to support you in the way you would like. They may need more time to deal with their own feelings. However, you can find other sources of support. You could:
- talk to another relative, friend or colleague
- call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00
- join a support group
- have a talking therapy
- get support online, for example by joining our Online Community.
How we can help
Chat online anonymously to others who understand what you are going through. Our community is available 24/7 and has dedicated forums where you can get advice and ask our experts.