How to talk to others about your cancer

You may find talking about your feelings upsetting or uncomfortable. But putting how you feel into words can help you make the right decisions and feel supported.

There will often be relatives and friends who really want to support you. Talking to them about the type of support you need will show that you value them. And will help them to know how to support you.

Talking can help you to make decisions and feel more in control of things. Discussing your fears or concerns can also help to understand them better and put them into perspective.

There are many reasons why you or people around you might find it difficult to talk about cancer. Sometimes, family and friends find it difficult to talk because they are struggling to accept your illness. If you don’t want to talk, try to be honest with your family and friends and let them know that you’re finding it hard to talk.

Tell people how they can support you. And if you’d rather not talk about cancer some days, then let them know.

Talking about a cancer diagnosis

After being diagnosed with cancer, you may find the idea of talking about it upsetting or uncomfortable. It may take you some time to cope with your diagnosis. Remember, there is not a right way to cope.

Putting feelings into words may 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.

Many people don’t like talking about their own needs. But it is okay and important to confide in others. Some people fear they will be seen as demanding. However, there will often be friends and relatives who want to help. Try starting a conversation and saying what you need, even if you just want them to listen. You may be surprised at how willing they are to support you. By asking for someone’s support, it shows that you value them.

The benefits of talking

Talking can help you cope with uncertainties or difficulties that are ahead. It can give you support and help you have some control over your situation.

We explain some of the possible benefits of talking here.

Understand how you are feeling and why

If you don’t 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.

Express how you are feeling

You may feel overwhelmed with lots of worries. Talking about how you are feeling can help with this.

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.

Find the solution to a problem

Talking with another person may help you think of solutions you may not have thought of on your own.

Feel more in control

Talking about any problems may make you feel more confident about dealing with difficult issues in the future. 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 assume 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.

Kim, Macmillan cancer information nurse specialist

As a specially qualified nurse, Kim has the expertise to answer medical questions you have about cancer.

About our cancer information videos

Kim, Macmillan cancer information nurse specialist

As a specially qualified nurse, Kim has the expertise to answer medical questions you have about cancer.

About our cancer information videos

Why it can be difficult to talk about cancer

Many people used to see cancer as something that shouldn’t be talked about. But things have changed a lot, and cancer is now widely talked and written about in magazines, on TV and on the radio.

However, there are several reasons why you may still find it difficult to talk about your cancer:

  • You may be afraid that you’ll lose control of your feelings, or that the person you are talking to will. You may feel you need to stay strong for the sake of other people.
  • Some people may never have had a serious illness themselves or known anyone who has. They may be unsure of what you want and need, or how to ask you.
  • Your family and friends may find it difficult to talk about your cancer because they are also struggling to accept your illness. They may avoid you altogether, and this can be upsetting at a time when you need their support. In most cases, their feelings will change over time and they will be able to talk to you. However, if they can’t, you may have to accept that this is their way of dealing with things.
  • You may feel your healthcare team are too busy to talk about your feelings, or that it is not their area of expertise. But starting a discussion with your doctor about how you are feeling can be helpful. Even if they cannot help you themselves, they should refer you to someone who can help.
  • It can be difficult to talk about cancer for any of these reasons. But being open and talking about your situation and feelings will let people know what support you may need. You can learn to judge reactions and see who is willing to talk to you and be supportive.

Asking for support

When you’re asking someone for support, you may find the following suggestions helpful:

  • Feel free to talk about day-to-day things. Having cancer doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to talk about anything else. Many people find it helpful to talk about everyday life as well as major issues they’re facing, so there’s no need to feel limited.
  • Let the person know you want to talk about issues related to your cancer. This lets them know that what you’re about to say is important to you.
  • Think about which issues are most important to you. You may feel like there’s a lot on your mind, but when you focus your thoughts, you might find there are only two or three things that you really want to discuss.
  • If you want to talk about something that’s worrying you, try to tell the person what it is in particular. You may find it easier to narrow down what’s worrying you 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’. This can make it easier to then focus on particular problems.
  • If you’ve been worrying about something a lot, let the person you’re talking to know. This helps them understand how important the issue is to you, and they can focus on that.
  • Asking the other person whether they understand may help you feel like you’re being listened to. You could use any phrase you like to do this, such as, ‘Do you see what I mean?’ or,‘Does that make sense to you?’ If you’ve agreed that you or they will do something after the conversation, you may also want to sum up what’s been agreed at the end of the conversation.
  • After you’ve spoken about important topics, don’t feel embarrassed going back to small talk. You don’t have to discuss serious issues all the time. Chatting about everyday things can also help you feel like normal life is still going on.

Telling people how they can support you

You may like to use this person-centred thinking tool to write down how your family and friends could help you. These tools were developed by cancer survivors. Sharing this with people close to you may help them support you in the way you need. The website has examples, stories and support to help you use the tool.


People are often unsure about whether they should use humour when talking about difficult subjects. This is a personal thing and depends very much on how you and the people close to you usually interact with each other.

You may find it helpful to use humour in some situations. However, you don’t want your family or healthcare team to think you don’t understand the seriousness of the situation. Humour can be a useful way of coping, as it can make situations less frightening. Use your judgement to decide when it would be appropriate to use humour, and when it may upset the people close to you.

If joking about things has been part of the way you’ve coped with challenging things in the past, it may help you now. But if you haven’t used humour in this way in the past, it may be less helpful.

We have more information about speaking to people about your cancer, and understanding their responses. We also have information about how to talk to someone with cancer that has advice for family and friends.

Talking to children about cancer

It is not always easy to talk to children about cancer or your emotions. However, it’s often best to be as open with them as you can and give them information that’s appropriate to their age.

If you’re a parent with young children and you’re very tired, worried or upset, it may help for someone else to look after the children for a while to give you a break. This can be upsetting for all of you. But don’t feel that this is a failure on your part. Giving yourself some time now will help later. At other times, you may feel that having your children around helps you feel better.

Children can be very loving and affectionate, and this can be very helpful. Hugs, kisses and knowing your children love you can help you feel more positive. Simply making an effort to smile and talk to them may help you feel better. Doing things with your children can also help improve your mood, for example playing with them or taking them for a walk, bike ride or swim.

We have more information about talking to children and teenagers when an adult has cancer.

If you don’t want to talk

There may be times when you don’t feel like talking and want to be on your own. Don’t feel that you have to see people if you don’t want to or if you need time to yourself.

Allow other people to go to the door or answer the phone for you. If you are in hospital, you may want to save your energy to cope with treatment. It may help to limit the number of visitors you have. You can ask a relative or the nurses to help you with this.

Dealing with family and friends

You may not want to talk about the cancer, but people you care about may want to. If this happens, try to be open and honest with your family and friends. Let them know that it is hard for you to talk. You could tell them there may be a limit to how much you feel able to share.

If family or friends want to talk about the cancer when you don’t, it can cause conflict. We have information about dealing with people’s reactions to the cancer. It includes tips on resolving conflict in relationships.

It is up to you how much you want to talk about your diagnosis. For example, if you are going out to enjoy yourself with your friends, don’t be afraid to tell them that you would rather not talk about cancer today. Or you could say that you will bring it up if you want to discuss it.

However, not talking about the cancer at all can cause problems if it goes on for weeks or months. It may become difficult to make decisions about treatment or decisions about your employment situation. This can delay the start of your treatment, cause financial difficulty and make relationships worse.

We have information about dealing with difficult feelings. We also have advice for family and friends about talking with someone who has cancer.

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