Talking about cancer

Talking about cancer isn’t easy. It’s hard to know what to say. And it’s hard to predict how others will react to news of a diagnosis, to updates about treatment or to hearing that cancer has come back. You may worry that you’ll start to cry or that talking about your feelings is a sign of weakness. You may avoid talking about how you feel because you don’t want people to get upset or worry about you.

But it’s good to talk. It can help you understand your own emotions and feel more in control. It can make your relationships stronger and help people understand what you’re going through. And it’s the first step to getting support. Simply having someone listen can help you. And once people know what you’re going through, they usually want to help in other ways as well.

There isn’t a right or wrong way to talk about cancer. Who you tell and how you talk about things may be different depending on your relationship with each person. These tips can give you some ideas on talking about cancer:

Prepare first. Decide who you want to tell in person or by phone. Think about what you want to say and how much detail you will give. Try to think of the questions people might ask and then come up with some simple answers. You don’t have to answer every question. How much or how little you share is up to you.

Be as honest as you can about how you feel. You’re allowed to have all of your emotions. You don’t need to protect people by hiding your fears. It’s healthy to express them. If you aren’t sure how you feel, say so. Once you start talking, you may find it’s easier than you expected.

Make it easy to have a private, quiet conversation. When you are ready to talk, find a quiet time and place so that you won’t be interrupted. Turn off the TV, computer and cell phones. Close the door.

Have a support person with you. It sometimes helps to have someone who already knows what’s going on with you. They can support you and help answer questions.

Ease into the conversation. Let the person know that you have something serious to talk about with them.

Give information in small chunks. It’s easier to understand upsetting news with a few sentences at a time. Check to make sure that the person understands what you’re saying.

Don’t force it. Most people find there are times when they want to share and times when they don’t. Be honest if there are times when you don’t want to talk. And respect the times when others aren’t ready or don’t want to talk.

Don’t worry about silences. You may find that holding hands or sitting together quietly says enough.

If silence makes you uncomfortable, you might want to ask a simple question such as, “What are you thinking about?”

Choose someone to speak for you. It can be exhausting to keep talking about your diagnosis or to provide treatment updates. You don’t have to tell everyone yourself. You can ask a friend or family member to share the news with as many people as you would like.

Sharing without talking

If you find it hard to talk, you may find it easier to share your thoughts and feelings in other ways.

Email and social media. Telling people any news by email or on social media allows you time to choose your words carefully, without having to repeat yourself to different people. It can also be less emotionally draining. You can also ask someone else to write and respond to emails or post updates.

Shared notepads or journals. With a shared notepad, people can write down their feelings and read about how others are feeling without having to speak aloud.

Use different types of art. You can express your feelings by writing songs or poetry or finding some written by others. Create a painting, drawing or sculpture that shows what you are feeling.

Be physically present. Sometimes people want to sit quietly together, hold hands, hug, cry together or just be a shoulder to cry on.

If you don’t feel like talking

Sometimes, you just may not want to talk about cancer. For you, the best way to cope may be to stay busy with day-to-day tasks. Talking about cancer may add more stress when your energy is better used for dealing with cancer treatments.

Let people know that this is the way you want to cope right now and that you’ll let them know when you’re ready to talk.

With casual friends or co-workers, it may be easier and more comfortable for you to say a few words without getting into any details. You can give a brief but honest answer and say you appreciate their concern.

Expert review and references

How people may react

You will probably get a range of reactions when you talk about having cancer. Some people will be easy to talk to and will know just what to say and how to support you. Others may react in ways that surprise or confuse you. They may get so upset that you end up having to comfort them.

Talking to children about cancer

You may worry a lot about children who are still at home and how cancer affects them. You might be tempted to avoid talking about cancer, especially with younger children. But children often sense something is wrong and may imagine the worst if they’re not told the truth.

Telling people at work

Do you have to tell people at work that you have cancer? The short answer is no. If you need to take time off, reduce your hours or change how you work during treatment or afterwards, you can ask your doctor for a note that says there are medical reasons for your request. That is all that your boss or supervisor needs to know. You don't have to tell co-workers anything at all if you don't want to.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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