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 cancer

After being diagnosed with cancer, you may find the idea of talking to family and friends upsetting or uncomfortable. It may take you some time to come to terms with your diagnosis.Trying to put how you are feeling into words may feel overwhelming. But it can help you make the right decisions and feel supported.

Lots of people don’t like talking about their own needs, because they don’t want to seem needy, demanding or attention-seeking. Or they may feel the need to protect other people from being upset by their news.

However, there will often be relatives and friends who really want to help. Try starting a conversation with them and saying what you need – even if you just want them to listen to you. You may be surprised at how willing they are to support you. By asking for someone else’s support, it shows that you value them. Often they will feel happy knowing that you’re comfortable enough to talk to them about what’s on your mind.

The benefits of talking

It can feel so difficult to talk about cancer that you may think, ‘Should I bother?’ or, ’Is it worth talking about it if it makes my friends feel uncomfortable?’ But talking can help you cope with any uncertainties or difficulties that may lie ahead. It can support you and give you some control over your situation.

How talking can give you support

Putting things into words helps us make sense of them and leaves us feeling more in control of them. Generally speaking, people take comfort in talking. Discussing fears or concerns often helps us understand them better and put them into perspective. Talking about our feelings can also make us feel less anxious.

For example, you may have unanswered questions and find it difficult to make up your mind about some issues. But by talking the situation through, you may realise that you can find the answer or make a particular decision.

Talking about a fear or worry often stops it from growing bigger in our minds. Often when we’re thinking about something all the time, we worry about it more and more. Once the fear is out in the open and being discussed, this process often stops. We can also use talking to help us rehearse a difficult conversation we know we need to have.

Finally, talking about something important or personal creates a bond between people, and this can make you feel appreciated and supported.

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

Some people don’t want to talk about their thoughts or feelings, or about their cancer and its treatment. They would rather just get on with life, and they find that doing normal everyday things and not discussing the cancer is the best way for them to cope.

While you may not want to talk about your cancer, remember that the people you care about may want to. Try to be open and honest with your family and friends. Let them know that it’s hard for you to talk and there may be a limit to how much you feel able to share.

You may also want time with your family and friends when you don’t talk about your cancer, for example if you’re going out somewhere to enjoy yourselves. In this situation, don’t be afraid to say that you’d rather not talk about your cancer today or that you’ll bring up the issue if you want to discuss it.

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