Dealing with people’s reactions to the cancer

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

If someone reacts in a way that is not helpful, try these tips:

  • Acknowledge and respond to their feelings.
  • Tell them how you feel.
  • If they avoid talking, gently ask them to listen.
  • Tell them if you want to have a break from talking about the cancer.

Dealing with cancer is stressful. It can sometimes cause disagreements. If this happens, try these tips:

  • Describe how you feel rather than acting on it.
  • Accept that you both have strong emotions.
  • If you cannot agree on an issue, you can ‘agree to disagree’.
  • Ask the other person how they feel, and let them talk about it.
  • Try not to criticise them. Tell them how you feel instead.
  • Try writing down your feelings or talking to someone else. This might help you see things differently.

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Ways people may react

How people react when you tell them about the cancer may depend on 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. But you may find the news makes other people uncomfortable.

Lack of experience

Many people have no experience of talking to or supporting someone with cancer. They may be unsure of what you 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 will react if they start talking about 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. If you are open and can talk about your situation and feelings, you can tell people what support you need.

Sharing stories

Many people know someone who has had cancer. Some people may share stories with you that you find negative or distressing. It is okay to tell them you don’t want to hear those kind of stories right now.

Avoidance

People may not know what to say, but feel that they should know. This may mean they avoid you or simply say very little. This can be hurtful and disappointing.

Other people may only be able to talk about things they think are helpful and positive. If you need to talk about your fears, this may be frustrating.

You may find that other people go into denial. They may cope with the situation by pretending that it is not happening. This can be upsetting when you need their support.

More information

We have information about the feelings you may experience when you are diagnosed with cancer.

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

I couldn’t talk openly to the Asian community, because cancer is taboo. But I needed to make other ladies aware. By talking with them, my confidence has grown too.

Ravinder


Practical tips for dealing with the reactions

Acknowledge their feelings

Remember that the person cares about you. But they may be struggling to accept the cancer or do not know the best way to help. When you are trying to cope with cancer yourself, this may make you feel resentful about having to deal with their feelings. 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 are good at recognising how people feel, it can help to identify their emotion and what caused it. You could say things like the following:

  • ‘When I talk about the cancer, you look really upset’
  • ‘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, you might say things like this:

  • ‘I think both of us are finding this awful.’
  • ‘I know you are 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. There is information below about resolving conflict.

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 practical tips about talking and asking for support.

Ask to have a break from talking

Ask to have a break from talking if:

  • you are being forced to talk before you are ready
  • you are finding it difficult to deal with emotional people.

You can come back to the conversation at a later date.

With some honest discussion and time, you may find your relationship becomes supportive for you and the other person. You could talk to them about practical ways can support you.

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. You may have to accept they cannot help and find other sources of support. You could:

  • talk to another relative, friend or colleague
  • call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00
  • join a support group
  • have a talking therapy
  • get support online, for example by joining our Online Community.

Talk about everyday things

You will learn to assess people’s reactions and focus on those who want 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.


Tips for your family and friends

Your family and friends may find it useful to visit our Online Community. It has a specific group for family and friends to share experiences and feelings, or get support from other people with similar experiences.


Managing disagreements

When dealing with cancer, people are often worried and nervous. This means arguments can happen. It is 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. But there are ways you can try to manage any disagreements.

Try to describe your feelings rather than acting on them

For example, try saying you feel angry instead of shouting.

Try to accept emotions

Remember that your family and friends may have strong feelings too. Try to accept those feelings, as well as your own.

Remember you don’t have to agree

If you cannot agree on an issue, you can ‘agree to disagree’.

Don’t assume you know what the other person thinks or wants

Ask them how they are feeling instead.

Let the other person talk about how they feel

You should both have time to talk, even if you disagree.

Avoid ‘all or nothing’ words, such as ‘always’ and ‘never’

For example, try not to say things like this:

  • ‘You never listen to me.’
  • ‘I always call you.’

These words may 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 are unhappy about how you are feeling or your home life with people close to you, it may be helpful to talk to a counsellor.

If you feel very angry

Many of these arguments can be resolved with time. But some people find themselves getting very angry with others. If you feel anger is a problem for you, talk to your healthcare team about the help available. There may be anger management courses in your area.

Back to If you have cancer

Your partner

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