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.
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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.
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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
American Cancer Society. Talking with Friends and Relatives About Your Cancer. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society; 2011.
MacMillan Cancer Support. Cancer and Your Feelings . 2017: http://www.macmillan.org.uk/information-and-support/coping/your-emotions/dealing-with-your-emotions/cancer-and-your-feelings.html.
National Cancer Institute . Communication in cancer care (PDQ®) Health Professional Version . Bethesda, MD : 2018 : https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/adjusting-to-cancer/communication-hp-pdq#section/all.
National Cancer Institute . Communication in cancer care (PDQ®) Patient Version . Bethesda, MD : 2015 : https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/adjusting-to-cancer/communication-pdq#section/all.
Song L, Northouse L. Family and caregiver issues. Yarbro CH, Wujcki D, Holmes Gobel B (eds.). Cancer Nursing: Principles and Practice . 8th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning; 2016: 73:2045–2062.