How do I tell people I’m going to die from my cancer?

Before you read this: Thinking about death and dying can be really difficult – lots of people prefer not to focus on it, and that’s fine. If you’re not sure it’ll help you to read about these topics, it might be a good idea to go to a different page instead. You can come back to this page at any time you like.  

Thinking about death and dying may be something you want to do on your own, or you might find it helpful to have someone with you, like a family member or a close friend. Before you read the rest of this page, have a think about whether this is something you’re happy to do with someone else or alone. 

If you find out your cancer can’t be cured, and that you will die from your cancer, this is called a terminal diagnosis. Hearing this news is incredibly hard, and sharing it with other people can also be really difficult. Here you can find out more about how to manage those conversations, and what kind of things you might want to talk about.

What does it mean to have a terminal diagnosis?

If you have terminal cancer, it means that the cancer will get progressively worse and that you will die from it. You might hear this being called a ‘terminal diagnosis’. 

How do I talk about dying?

There’s no right or wrong way to talk or feel about your terminal diagnosis. This is likely to be a really confusing, emotional and stressful time, and the most important thing is that you do what’s right for you. 

Who you tell is completely your choice and you can tell people as much or as little about your terminal diagnosis as you feel comfortable with. You might want to ask your care team for some advice on different ways of sharing the news with people, and working out what level of detail you feel comfortable talking about. You can also ask your care team to support you with these conversations and be with you in person when you tell people.  

Your care team should communicate clearly with you too – that’s really important throughout your cancer experience, including now. Remember, it’s always OK to ask if you have questions or aren’t sure what something means. Your care team are here to support you.

Will it help me to talk about dying?

Receiving a terminal diagnosis is an extremely painful situation, and there’s no right or wrong way to react. 

You may simply not feel ready to talk about dying. You might be worried that talking about dying could cause more upset for the people closest to you. Your family and friends might feel unsure how to approach the subject and may be worried about getting it wrong. 

All of this is natural and understandable, and you should never feel pressured into having a conversation you don’t want. We all cope in different ways, so if you don’t feel comfortable talking about dying and would rather focus on the ‘here and now’, that’s fine too. 

But getting the chance to talk about things like how you want to spend the time you have left, how you want to be cared for, or wishes for your funeral, can be an important and empowering step. Talking about dying can also help you, your family and others close to you to feel more in control and support each other emotionally. 

Talking about dying can feel very overwhelming but it’s important to understand that talking about it won’t bring the end of your life any closer. It’s about continuing to live your life and make the most of the time you have left.  

The most important thing is that you feel supported and able to have the conversations you want and need, at a time and in a way that works for you. Your care team are here to help you with this. 

What kind of things might I want to talk about?

Some of the things you may find it helpful to talk about with your care team, family or friends could include: 

  • Things you’d like to do before you die, and making plans for these where possible 

  • How and where you’d like to be cared for at the end of your life, including if you become too ill to make choices 

  • What you’d like to happen at your funeral 

  • What you’d like to happen to your things 

  • How you’d like your family and friends to remember you on your birthday, or in general 

  • What you’d like to happen to your email and social media accounts – your ‘digital legacy’. You can find out more about this on our Planning for the end of your life page 

  • Your favourite memories 

  • Anything you’re feeling especially scared or anxious about 

Or you might not want to talk about any of this, and that’s fine too. 

Do I have to tell everyone?

No, who you tell is completely your choice.  

It can help to be as open and honest as possible with the people you tell about how you’re feeling, what they can do to help and what support you might need. It can be worrying thinking about how people might react to the news and what you might have to cope with. 

Before you speak to people, think about how much you want to tell them and how much you want them to know. This is your choice and it’s important you feel comfortable in these situations.  

It can also be useful to spend some time before these conversations thinking about what you want to say. You might want to make some notes. These might be exact sentences you want to read to them, or it might be an outline of what you want to cover in the conversation. 

Remember, you can stop conversations with your friends and family at any point if you’re feeling upset or overwhelmed. The same goes for conversations with your care team. 

How do I tell my friends?

You don’t have to tell certain people if you don’t want to. You might decide that you’d like to tell a small group of friends, you might want to tell everyone, or you might not want to tell anyone at all. It’s up to you.  

If you’re worried about telling a bigger group of people that you have a terminal diagnosis, you might want to tell a close friend first who can support you with the wider group. This way you can share with them what you’re happy and not happy to talk about. You can also explain to your friend that you might find the conversation difficult and want to step away at some point. If this happens, they will hopefully be able to support you and explain to others how you’re feeling.  

It’s hard to know how people will react when you tell them you have a terminal diagnosis. You might find that the people you tell are in shock and might not say a lot, or they might become very emotional and upset.  

It’s important to remember that you need to look after yourself and how you feel. If you need to take yourself out of the situation to have some time to yourself, that’s completely fine. If you’re able to, explain you need some time and step away for as long as you need. It’s OK to tell people what you need from them at this time. It might be that you’d like practical help with certain things, or you’d like them to be with you for future conversations as emotional support.  

How to manage difficult conversations

You might find that some people you tell find it difficult to talk about death and dying, or avoid talking about it all together. This can be especially hard to deal with if you do want to speak about it.  

Finding people you can trust and who will support you can really help in this situation. It might also help to explain that you want to talk about dying, and you don’t want people to avoid the conversation. 

You can also ask your care team for support with these conversations. They might be able to support these conversations in person, or offer you advice on how you might be able to open up these conversations with your friends and family.  

You don’t have to do all the talking

It can be useful to have some websites or resources ready to share with people, so you don’t have to be the one to answer any questions they have. You can ask your care team if they have any recommendations of places to signpost people to.  

It’s also worth bearing in mind that you don’t have to be the person to tell people. You might want specific people to know, but you can ask someone else to have that conversation with them. You can ask a family member or trusted friend to share this news if they feel comfortable to do so.  

If you don’t feel comfortable talking to people face to face about this you can also write it down to share with people. You could write a letter, email or a group text to share this with friends and family. This also means you can reply to any questions you might get in your own time and on your own terms. This might also make it easier to have face to face conversations later.  

If you have younger siblings or family members, you might be concerned about how to talk to them about your terminal diagnosis. There’s no set way to do this but Marie Curie has some really useful information that you might find useful to read before having these conversations. 

Macmillan and Hospice UK have some useful information that could be helpful to direct people to.  

More help with talking about dying