Why talking can help

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

Talking about cancer can seem overwhelming. But it is important to think about who needs to know and the best way to talk to them about it.

This can help you get the support you need at home, at work and from your healthcare team. It can also help you to make decisions that are right for you.

We have practical tips for how to tell people you have cancer.

We also have information about talking to:

The benefits of talking

Talking can help if you feel worried or uncertain. It can give you support and help you have some control over your situation.

  • Understand how you are feeling and why

    If you do not talk about how you are feeling, you may feel confused. Putting your thoughts into words will often help you understand what you are feeling and why.

  • Be reassured that your feelings are normal

    You may have lots of different emotions. Having someone listen to you without judgement may reassure you that what you are feeling is normal.

  • Feel more in control

    Talking about any problems may make you feel more confident about dealing with difficult issues. It may also make you feel better about having hard conversations.

  • Make important decisions

    If you have to make decisions that affect others, you may think you know what other people are thinking or feeling. But sometimes they surprise you with their views and can help you make tough decisions.

  • Feel more supported and less anxious

    If you feel someone else understands, cares and is there for you, it may reassure you that you are not going through difficult times alone.

  • Build bonds with your family and friends

    Talking about personal issues with people close to you and including them in important decisions often makes them feel valued.

Who can you talk to?

Think about who you usually talk with about important issues or difficult problems. This is probably the best person to talk to.

This may be your partner, your closest friend, your eldest child, another family member, a work colleague, a counsellor or a religious leader. It may be somebody who is going through or has been through a similar experience.

Sometimes it is easier to talk with someone you do not know. You may feel less pressure to act a certain way. You may also feel safe knowing that they will not share the conversation with your friends or family.

If you feel this way, you could:

Talking about your diagnosis

Telling family and friends about a cancer diagnosis can be hard. You may worry about how your family or friends will react. Or you may feel guilty about the effect of the cancer and its treatment on the lives of your family and friends.

Although you may feel alone at this time, it is 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.

If you have told your family and friends you have been for tests, they might be waiting to hear the results. You may feel forced into talking about the cancer before you are ready.

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.

How to tell people you have cancer

People usually tell the people closest to them first. It is also important to tell any children you have. Depending on how old they are, you might need to prepare more for this conversation.

Before the conversation, you could do the following:

  • Make a list of who you want to talk to in person.
  • Take some paper to write down any questions they ask, so you can ask your healthcare team.
  • Think about how much you want to share the first time you talk with someone. You can say you need a break and will talk more at a later time.
  • Try to get the setting right. If you are in a space that you find quiet and comfortable, it can help the conversation.

We have practical tips for how to tell people you have cancer.

Dealing with people's reactions

How people react when you tell them about the cancer may depend on different things. These include what experience they have of cancer and how well they cope with fear and anxiety.

Some people will be keen to support you. They may even want to talk about things before you are ready.

But you may find the news makes other people uncomfortable. Some family members or friends may say nothing. This could be because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing. You may have to bring the subject up.

It can help to think about the reasons why someone may not react in the way that you would like them to:

  • Lack of experience

    Many people have no experience of talking to or supporting someone with cancer. They may be unsure of what you need. They may be too embarrassed to ask if they think they should already know. You may have to bring up the subject.

  • Fear of your reaction

    People may worry about how you will react if they start talking about the cancer. They may be scared of upsetting you. They may think they won’t know what to do if you cry or get upset. If you are open and can talk about your situation and feelings, you can tell people what support you need.

  • Sharing stories

    Many people know someone who has had cancer. Some people may share stories with you that you find negative or upsetting. It is okay to tell them you do not want to hear that kind of story right now.

  • Avoidance

    People may not know what to say, but feel that they should know. This may mean they avoid you or do not say much. Other people may only be able to talk about things they think are helpful and positive. If you need to talk about your fears, this may be frustrating.

  • Denial

    You may find that other people go into denial. They may cope with the situation by pretending that it is not happening. This can be upsetting when you need their support.

We have more advice about dealing with people’s reactions to the cancer.

You can visit healthtalk.org to watch videos of people talking about their cancer experiences and how they coped with other people’s reactions.

Your family and friends may find our information about talking with someone who has cancer useful.

They could also visit our Online Community. It has a group for family and friends to share experiences and feelings, or get support from other people with similar experiences.

If you do not want to talk

Some people do not want to talk about their thoughts or feelings, or about the cancer and its treatment. They would rather just get on with life. They may find that doing normal, day-to-day things and not talking about the cancer is the best way for them to cope.

If you do not feel ready to talk, you could practice what to say when people ask how you are. For example, you could say, ‘Thank you for asking how I am. I’ll let you know when I feel ready to talk.’

But not talking about the cancer at all can cause problems after a while. It may become hard to make decisions about treatment or about work. This can delay the start of your treatment and cause problems with your finances and relationships.

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