Finding out you have cancer

Telling other people about cancer can be difficult. It’s up to you how much you tell people and who you tell. You may find it easier to talk face to face or you may find it easier to text or email. Do what is best for you. It can help to introduce the subject gently and to give people small amounts of information at a time.

If you are at school or university, it’s a good idea for you (or someone close to you) to tell them about your situation. Your teachers may be able to help. If you are working, telling your employers will mean they can support you.

You may have all sorts of different feelings – you may feel shocked and numb at first, or scared, angry or upset. There is no right way to feel. And it’s quite normal to feel fine one minute and worried the next. Talking to the people close to you may help you cope. If you are struggling, it might also help to see a counsellor or psychologist.

What to say to people

You may worry about what to say to people about your diagnosis. It can be difficult telling people what is happening, and you might be worried about how they will react.

It’s up to you how much you want to tell people and who you want to tell. You might decide to only tell your family and some close friends who you trust .

Think about how you let people know what is going on. You could talk face to face or on the phone. Or you may find it easier to send an email, letter or text. Social media can also be a great way of keeping in touch, but remember what you say will be seen by others, unless you send a private message.

Here are some tips:

  • Think about how much you want to share. For example, you could say you are waiting for tests and results, but that you are trying to get on with life as normal.
  • Introduce the subject gently. You could start with something like: ‘This is going to be difficult, but I need to tell you something’.
  • Try to give small amounts of information. The person you are telling may not be able to take everything in at one time.

School or university

If you are at school or university, it is a good idea for you or someone close to you (like a parent or an adult family member) to talk to staff about your situation. If you are worried about your health or not feeling well, it can be hard to concentrate or do well in coursework or exams. If your teachers know what is happening, they may be able to help.

Work

If you are working, you may feel unsure about what to tell your employer. It can help to be honest at this stage, especially if you need to take time off for hospital appointments.

Whether you are in education or employment, you can always speak to your specialist nurse or social worker if you need help to explain your situation.

I got some of my close friends to come around to tell them about my diagnosis. They were just so amazing and supportive.

Matt, diagnosed with ALL in 2013


Your feelings

When your doctor tells you that you have cancer, you may find it hard to believe. It is common to feel shocked and numb. You may not be able to take in much information, and find that you keep asking the same questions again and again.

The fear of what might happen next may sometimes be the only thing on your mind. You may feel very sad and upset.

You may know someone who has had cancer. If they did not get better, you might assume that getting cancer means you may die. But the number of people who are successfully treated and cured is increasing. Many cancers that affect young people respond well to treatment. This means that most young people with cancer will get better and have full and long lives.

You may find that your mood changes a lot. One minute you may be laughing with your friends, and the next you may burst into tears – this is completely normal. Or you may find your feelings hit you much later.

Finding out you have cancer is not easy, and it can be hard to fully understand what is happening. It can help to have someone you trust, such as a family member or close friend, with you when you go for your hospital appointments. They can provide support and be there to talk things through with you. They could also help by bringing a list of questions to ask and writing down the answers for you.

Talking about the cancer

After being diagnosed with cancer, you may find the idea of talking about it upsetting or uncomfortable. And putting your feelings into words may seem overwhelming. But talking about how you feel and what you need can help you feel supported. If talking feels too difficult, it may help to write down how you are feeling and then share this with someone you trust.

Sometimes it is hard to be open with the people closest to you. If it feels easier, you can talk to a doctor, nurse or any member of the team caring for you.

Counselling (support if you would like to talk about your feelings)

If you are struggling to cope or feeling low, then it might be a good idea to see a counsellor or psychologist. They are trained to help you understand your feelings so that you can cope better.

You can ask your GP or healthcare team to refer you to a counsellor. Some teenage and young adult (TYA) units will have a counsellor or psychologist as part of the team. Or there might be a counsellor at your school or university.

If you do see a counsellor, you can decide how much you would like to share with them. Anything you tell them will be confidential, so they won’t tell anybody else.

You may feel embarrassed about needing to talk to someone, but psychologists and counsellors are there to help. You may also find it helps to talk to somebody who is not directly involved in your situation. If you are angry with someone or frustrated, you can talk to the counsellor about it without upsetting anyone.

If you decide that the counsellor you are given is not the right person to help you, tell someone. It is important that you trust your counsellor and feel comfortable with them. You shouldn’t feel bad about asking to see someone else if it doesn’t feel right. The person who referred you to the counsellor may be able to arrange for you to see a different counsellor.

Hopes and fears

It might help you cope if you talk about what is frightening you, and things that you hope will happen. If you are finding it difficult to talk about these things, this thinking tool might help. You could use it to write down your hopes and fears. Putting them down on paper might be easier than saying them out loud at first. Or it might just help you to work out how you feel.

Even if you don’t want to share it with other people, you may still find it useful to write down your hopes and fears.

There is also space for you to think about what you could do next to help with your fears. This could be talking to someone in your healthcare team, talking to someone you trust, joining a support group, or just asking for some extra help with day-to-day things.

This thinking tool was written by people affected by cancer. You can find more tools, stories and help using the tool at thinkaboutyourlife.org If you have any comments about this thinking tool, please email cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

I was in disbelief. I couldn’t quite come to terms with the fact that I was faced with six months of chemotherapy.

Amrik

I thought it was a joke and didn’t want to believe that I had cancer. I didn’t know how to tell my parents, I didn’t know how to react.

Meriam

Surprisingly I was quite relieved to know what was going on. I didn’t think negatively, just thought what next, how can we deal with it.

Ellis

Back to Teens and young adults

Understanding cancer

Cancer happens when something goes wrong with our cells and they grow in an uncontrolled way.

Cancer types

Find information about the cancer types that are most likely to affect teens and young adults.

Tests and scans

Find out about some of the tests and scans that are used to diagnose cancer and to see how you're doing during and after treatment.

Cancer treatment

Find out about the possible treatments for cancer. We have info about when each treatment might be used, how it's given and possible side effects.

Relationships, sex and fertility

During or after treatment, you may worry about whether the cancer and its treatment will affect your relationships, sex life or fertility (ability to have children).

After cancer treatment

This section is about some of the physical, emotional and practical issues that might affect you after you've finished your cancer treatment.