How do I tell people I have cancer?


21 April 2021

Being told the news that you have cancer is devastating. It can leave you reeling in shock, disbelief and confusion. Or feeling numb, angry and fearful. But while you're trying to make sense of it yourself, how and when do you go about telling other people about your cancer diagnosis?

There's no right or wrong way to feel about your diagnosis. Likewise there's no right or wrong way to tell other people. You may want to process the news properly yourself before you start explaining the situation to other people and there might be some people you don't want to tell yet.

But in the case of those who love and care for you ‒ your partner, close family or best friends ‒ they'll want to know and understand. Even though they may feel shocked, scared or confused at first, just like you, sharing the burden can help you feel less alone. And, ultimately, having their support will be valuable to you as you embark on your cancer treatment.

Here are some tips to help you cope with communicating about cancer and telling other people:

1. Take someone with you

Hospital appointments can be daunting, especially when you're receiving a cancer diagnosis. It's normal to be unable to take all the information in. One study, for example, found that 40-80% of medical information isn't retained, especially when it's stressful.

An extra pair of ears, someone to ask questions or take notes can help, so take a partner, family member or friend to appointments with you.

2. Ask your specialist to write down and explain critical information

Ask your specialist to write down important information for you, especially the things that other people are likely to ask you to explain. For example, the staging of your cancer, the treatment you'll have, the name of the drugs you'll need to take and for how long.

The more informed you are, the better positioned you'll be to communicate and help other people understand. Research shows that cancer patients who are well informed feel more in control over their own decision making and have a higher quality of life.

3. Ask your cancer nurse

If there's terminology you find confusing, or something you realise you don't understand after your appointment, ask your dedicated cancer nurses. They're there to help you every step of the way and will be happy to explain.

4. Be honest with family

Although you might be tempted to shield close family from the truth, they'll thank you more in the long run if you're honest. You'll feel better too ‒ hiding secrets is stressful.

5. Express yourself

If you're finding it hard to talk about all of your feelings, find other ways to express yourself. Offloading all your thoughts and worries on paper can be therapeutic, plus it can help you make sense of things.

This is useful to simply do for yourself, but if you find it easier, you could write things down in a letter or email for friends or family too. Some people find talking easier when there are no immediate responses to deal with. Try recording your feelings or experiences in a video or vlog.

6. Coping with other people's reactions

As if it's not enough having to cope with telling other people about your cancer, sadly you may have to deal with their inappropriate reactions too. Some people just don't know what to say or how to react. Others might try and offer words of wisdom ‒ such as 'My cousin/friend/next door neighbour had that and was fine', 'You need to think positive', or 'Don't worry, I'm sure you'll be okay' ‒ and miss the mark completely.

It's hard, but be prepared for some unintentional insensitivity. Don't take it to heart. Shrug it off as being well meant or just switch off and ignore the inappropriate advice.

7. The choice is yours

Don't feel pressured to tell everyone you've got cancer. You don't have to tell work colleagues if you don't want to. Set your own rules and do what's right for you.

8. Reach out to others and accept offers of help

There will be times when both you and your family need extra support. In addition to your cancer nurse, there are plenty of national organisations, such as Macmillan Cancer or Cancer Research UK , that you can reach out to for information and advice. Plus they have networks offering support from other cancer patients and their families.

If you’d like more information, visit our Cancer Centre for general cancer information and advice or ask one of our experts.

Further reading

Coping with a cancer diagnosis – AXA Health

Tried and tested, these practical tips can really help you manage the day-to-day challenges.

5 cancer myths busted – AXA Health

Evelyn Wallace, Clinical Manager of our Cancer Care team, helps to sort the fact from the fiction.

Feeling overwhelmed? Here are 10 tips to put you in control of cancer – AXA Health

Some useful tips to empower you as you navigate the new (to you) cancer journey.

Top Cancer fighting foods - AXA Health

Find out what foods have a track record for protecting against cancer – and which can have the opposite effect.

Useful resources for help and support

Cancer Research UK

Macmillan Cancer Support

Cancer support UK

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