Dealing with people’s reactions

People may react in different ways when you tell them you have cancer. Some people will be keen to support you. But not everyone will know how to. They may worry about upsetting you and not know what to do or say. Some people may avoid the subject completely or only talk about positive things.

If a person reacts in a way that isn’t helpful, here are some tips that you can try:

  • Acknowledge their feelings.
  • Tell them how you feel.
  • If someone avoids talking, gently ask them to listen.
  • If they want to talk before you are ready, ask for more time.

Dealing with cancer is stressful and can sometimes cause misunderstandings or disagreements. If this happens, try the following tips:

  • Accept that you both have strong feelings.
  • If you feel angry, describe how you feel rather than acting on it.
  • Try to listen to the other person’s point of view.
  • If you can’t agree on an issue, you can still ‘agree to disagree’. 
  • Try writing down your feelings or talking to about the situation with someone else. This may help you see things differently.

How people might react

How people react when you tell them about the cancer may depend on many 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. If you don’t want to talk, we have some advice on dealing with this.


Lack of experience

Many people have no experience of talking to, or supporting, someone with cancer. They may be unsure of what you want and 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’ll react if they bring up the subject of 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. But if you’re open and able to talk about your situation and feelings, you can let people know what support you need.


Avoidance

They may have no idea what to say, but may feel that they should know. So, because they don’t know what to say, they may avoid you altogether or simply say very little. This can be hurtful and disappointing.

Other people may only be able to talk about helpful and positive things. This may frustrate you if you feel you need to talk about your fears.

You may find that other people go into denial and that they cope with the situation by pretending that it’s not happening. Again, this can be upsetting when you need their support.

Most people find talking about cancer very difficult. But for fear of saying the wrong thing they say nothing – which is extremely upsetting.

Chris


Practical tips for dealing with the reactions of other people

  • Acknowledge their feelings. Remember that the person cares about you, but may be struggling to accept the cancer or doesn’t know the best way to help. You may feel resentment that you have to deal with their feelings when you are trying to cope with the cancer yourself. But try not to push them away or brush their feelings aside as it is likely to make things worse.
  • Always try to respond to their feelings. If you’re good at recognising how people might feel, it can help to identify their emotion and what caused it. This can be quite simple, such as, ‘When I talk about the cancer you look really upset’ or, ‘I know you are feeling very helpless and taking control is your way of coping, but…’
  • Don’t be afraid to say how you feel too. For example, ‘I think both of us are finding this awful’ or, ‘I know you’re 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. Arguments are common. If you get into an argument, see our information about resolving conflict below.
  • 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. We have more information on how to ask for support from your family and friends.
  • Ask for more time. If you are being forced to talk before you are ready or if you are finding it difficult to deal with emotional people. Then come back to them at a later date. We have more information if you don’t want to talk.

With some honest discussion and time, you may find that your relationship becomes supportive for both you and the other person.

We have a tool that may help you to talk to family and friends about how they can support you in practical ways. You can download a PDF of the tool.

However, 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. Or you may have to accept they cannot help and find other sources of support.

You’ll learn to assess people’s reactions, and to focus on those who are willing to talk to you and be supportive. 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.

Your family and friends may find it useful to visit The Source to view simple, practical tips from people who have first-hand experience supporting someone with cancer.


Resolving arguments

When dealing with cancer, people are often worried and nervous, and arguments can happen. For these reasons, it’s possible there will be times when you won’t always agree with your family or friends, colleagues or with a member of your healthcare team.

Practical tips to help you manage disagreements

  • Try to describe your feelings rather than acting on them. For example, say you feel angry instead of shouting.
  • Try to accept emotions – yours and the other person’s.
  • If you can’t agree on an issue, you can ‘agree to disagree’.
  • Don’t assume you know what the other person thinks or wants – ask them.
  • Give the other person a chance to also talk about how they feel – even if you disagree.
  • Avoid ‘all or nothing’ words such as ‘always’ and ‘never’. For example, ‘You never listen to me’ or, ‘I always call you.’ These words make the other person defensive.
  • Avoid criticising someone’s character – say how their actions made you feel instead. For example, instead of saying, ‘You are thoughtless – I have to remember everything’, try saying, ‘I feel overwhelmed and stressed when I have a lot to remember.’
  • Talk about the issue with someone else. You may find a solution by seeing things from a different point of view.
  • Try to see the other person’s side of the argument. They may feel bad about the conflict and seeing this may help you feel less angry.
  • Write down some of your feelings. This can help you to put things in perspective.
  • Contact a counselling service. If you’re unhappy about personal issues or your home life, it may be helpful to talk to a counsellor.

Many of these arguments can be resolved with time. But some people find themselves getting very angry with others. We have more information and tips on managing anger.

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

Back to If you have cancer

Talking and relationships

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