Telling people you have cancer

Finding out you have cancer can be one of the most overwhelming things that can happen in a person’s life. It can also be very overwhelming for your loved ones as they care about you and may be upset and frightened by the news. Some people worry about how their family or friends will react. Others worry that dealing with the emotions of their friends and family could make things worse.

Sometimes, people blame themselves for their cancer and fear the reaction of their family and friends. However, we know that cancer happens when cells multiply out of control and that we cannot change this ourselves so you should not feel guilty or responsible.

The most important thing to remember is that, although some of your family and friends may find it difficult to talk about your cancer, the best way to overcome this difficulty is often by talking. While you deal with your diagnosis and treatment, your family and friends can be an enormous support to you and telling people about your cancer is the first step to letting them understand and help you through this challenge. Sometimes, telling those closest to you helps you take in the reality of what’s happening.  By talking, you might also begin to solve problems and think about other issues as your family and friends ask questions.

Decide who to tell

It can be helpful to start by making a list of people that you want to talk to in person.  Most people usually tell their spouse or partner first, then other family and close friends. It’s also important to tell your children, which might require more preparation depending on their ages.

You might also want to make a list of friends or family that you see less often. Perhaps you can have another friend or family member contact them with the news.

If you work, you may need to let your line manager or someone in HR know that you have a medical problem and that you may need to take time off. If you have co-workers, you can think about if and when you would like them to know. Remember that not everyone needs to be told at the same time and does not need to receive the same level of information.

Dealing with shock

Think about how you felt when you first heard the news about your cancer. Your loved ones may go through similar emotions as they love and care about you. They may struggle with finding the right words, they may feel sad or angry. Some people don’t know what to say or are so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they say nothing at all. Other people find comfort in talking while others try to hide their fear and sadness by becoming too cheerful.

Think about the time and place

Everyone lives very busy lives and there is often lots of comings and goings, even within a home. Try to get the setting right. Make sure the television is turned off, tablets and phones are on silent, the room is quiet, you are sitting comfortably and you can see each other’s face easily.

Introduce the topic

While it might be tempting to blurt things out, try to introduce the subject gradually, rather than just saying you have cancer straight away. You could say something like, ‘This is going to be difficult, but I need to tell you something.’ That can also help ensure that your friend or family member gives you their full attention and understands that this is an important conversation. If your cancer is serious but your doctors believe that you will be all right after treatment, you could try saying something like,  ‘I’ve had some bad news, but there’s a good chance that everything will be okay after I’ve had treatment.’

Accept the silence

Hearing that someone you love has cancer is very upsetting, very frightening news so your loved one may need time to process this. They may sit and think for some periods, during which they don’t say anything. It might also be that they simply don’t know what to say. Don’t be put off by this silence.  Just sitting together in the same room and perhaps holding hands or having a hug can often say more than any words. If you find that the silence makes you feel uncomfortable, the easiest way to break it is with simple questions such as, ‘What are you thinking about?’

Be honest

It is important to be honest about your situation. It can be hard to tell someone close to you something that will upset them and you may be tempted to downplay or sugar coat your situation so that they will feel better. However, it is better for them to know the full truth about your situation now than to learn it later. This will help them to understand your illness and support you better.

It will also help you as you will have someone who understands your worries and who you can talk to about your fears and anxieties if you like. You may have to cope with a lot during your treatment so hiding your feelings is a burden that you don’t necessarily want to take on. It is healthy to let others know about your sadness, anxiety, anger, or other emotional distress.

If you or your family normally do not like to talk about certain personal issues, remember that it’s OK not to open up to everyone. Some people are very careful about who they talk with and what they talk about. This might be a good time, though, for you to start to work on becoming more open with trusted loved ones.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Many people may offer to help you when they hear you have cancer. While you may not feel you need help at the moment, there may come a time during treatment where it might be useful if someone gave you lifts to and from hospital appointments or helped with things like the shopping. If you are not sure how your treatment is going to affect you or how you or your family are going to need support, that’s fine. Thank people for their kind offers and try saying something like, “I really appreciate the offer and I might take you up on that in a few weeks or months when I need it. Do you mind if I keep in touch?”

Remember that people want to help but may not know how. If, in the future, someone offers to help, and you would like to take them up on it, be as specific as possible about the kind of help you need.

Have a spokesperson

Some people say they get overwhelmed by having to tell lots of people about their diagnosis or by having to keep lots of people up to date with how their treatment is going. It could get tiring telling a lot of people details about your illness over and over again. You might have lots of friends of family who care about you and want to know how you are getting on so why not ask one member of your family or a close friend to ask as your spokesperson and keep everyone up to date on whatever news you choose to share. Some people use a Whats’App group as an easy way to do this.

If people have a lot of questions about your illness, you can also recommend that they visit a website or read a booklet that you had found helpful.

Learn your “trigger” points

Think about your ‘‘trigger points” or topics that are too sensitive for you to talk about yet. Do you get angry when people question your choice of treatments? Maybe this is a topic you’ll have to avoid. Does it annoy you when people bring religion into it, saying things like, “God never gives you more than you can handle?” Think about the things that people have said or could say that bother you. Then, plan a response that’s comfortable for you and cuts off the conversation. And once you’ve shared what you wish to share, be prepared to change to another topic. Maybe you can say something like “I really get tired of talking about cancer. Let’s talk about something else.”

When people say unhelpful things

Tell you to cheer up

Some friends or family members may tell you to “cheer up” when you talk to them about your sadness, worries, or fears. It’s OK to gently ask them if they’d be willing just to listen, without judgment or giving advice. It’s important for your mental health that you find someone you can talk to.

Don’t be discouraged by people who are uncomfortable with your feelings. Some people are unable to listen, not because of you, but because of their own feelings of fear or sadness. That has nothing to do with you. You may have to accept that this person may not be the best one for you to talk to. Look for others who can handle it better.


Ask questions you don’t want to answer

You may find that sometimes you have to answer questions about your cancer when you don’t feel like it. To avoid this, consider asking a family member or friend to be your spokesperson. It can be emotionally exhausting to answer the same questions about your cancer over and over again, even if you know it’s because people care about you. Having a spokesperson keeps you from having to do this, but keeps loved ones up to date without wearing you out.


In some cases, your cancer may be “big news” in your community. Some people will be truly concerned even if they do not know you very well. Others will be simply curious. Either way, your health is a personal matter and it is up to you how much you share.  It might help to have a few ways ready to tell people that you don’t want to talk about your personal business.  You could try saying, “Thank you for asking, but I’d rather not talk about it right now.” In cases where you need to be more direct, you could try, “I’d prefer not to go into details.”


Bring up cancer unexpectedly

There may be days when you are feeling better than others and may want to think about something other than cancer. Perhaps you will be out enjoying time with a friend or doing something with a partner or friend. However, sometimes, people might come up to you unexpectedly and start talking to you about cancer, or bring up the subject unexpectedly in an effort to reassure you or comfort you. You may want to end the conversation but also be polite.  Sometimes you just have to take a couple of deep breaths and say calmly, “Thank you so much for your concern, but I need to focus on something else today.” Remember, it’s always your decision about whether or not you choose to discuss it.


Become impatient or angry with you

Similar to the way that you might become angry, those close to you might become angry too. While you are the one most directly affected by the cancer, everyone close to you may go through a rollercoaster of emotions and anger is a common one.  It is important to remind yourself that while your friends and family might seem frustrated, they are angry with the situation – not with you. You might have had the same feeling at times.

You may hear, “You aren’t doing the things you used to do.” Children, and some adults, can be extremely self-centered. Or they might have moments where they miss the way that your lives used to be. Your social, family, and work roles will change as you begin to focus on treatment and healing and this is hard for everyone. Your energy levels will be low at times and you may not be able to do all that you had been doing. You will adjust more easily if you explain this to those around you and share your reactions to the different changes taking place in all of your lives. Talk to your family about how tasks can still be done even though you won’t be able to do all of them yourself.