Talking about your diagnosis

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

To start with, you might 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 is best to have the conversation when neither of you will be interrupted and you both have time to talk. Tell them the news slowly, a few sentences at a time. Give the other person time to take in what you have 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, it is fine to say that.

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

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Talking about your diagnosis

Telling family and friends about a cancer diagnosis can be hard. 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 of this.

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.

We have information about the benefits of talking about cancer.

Taking someone to hospital appointments

You may want to ask someone to go to hospital appointments with you. It can make future conversations easier, as it may give your partner, family member or friend a chance to:

  • ask the doctor any questions you or they have
  • take notes of important information.

It could also help you feel supported and cared for.

Before you go to an appointment, it can help to prepare any questions you would like answered. If you are feeling shocked or upset, you may struggle to prepare or ask things yourself. This can lead to frustration when trying to tell other people what was said. If someone comes with you, they can help you remember and tell people.

We have more tips for talking with healthcare staff.

Telling people the news

If you have told your family and friends you have been for tests, they might 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. If you don’t want to talk, we have more advice in our information about the reasons for talking about 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. We have information about talking to children and teenagers when an adult has cancer.

Other 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.

Before the conversation, 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 may want to tell them the type 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 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.

I was feeling really nervous about having to go home and tell my wife. I wasn’t sure how she would react, but knew it was going to be difficult.

Ashley


Practical tips for talking

Talking about your situation can help people support you in the future. It may also help you to feel less alone. Talking can also make you feel better, as though a weight has been lifted off you, even if nothing has changed.

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.’
  • ‘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 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 and give them more information

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.

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. If your situation seems like it will be okay, this is fine. But if you are really worried about the future, it is important they know so they can support you.

Be truthful

It is better for your family and friends to know the truth now, rather than find out how serious your situation is later on. If they find out later, they may feel hurt and upset that they haven’t been supporting you.

Tell your family and friends if things seem uncertain and 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 more distant 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 they can help, you don’t have to cope alone. 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.

You can download a PDF of the tool.

I found it helpful talking to people to get things off my chest, even if they couldn’t really understand what I was going through.

Paul

Back to If you have cancer

Talking and relationships

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