Talking about cancer

It can be hard to talk about cancer and you might find it difficult to open up to people about what you’re going through, but you might also find it helps. 

  • It’s completely up to you who you tell about your cancer diagnosis

  • If you want to talk to someone it’s worth thinking about who you’d like to speak to, and who would make you feel comfortable 

  • If you have any medical questions it’s always best to try and speak to someone in your care team   

Why talking about your diagnosis helps

You might like to keep things to yourself and that won’t necessarily change when you’re diagnosed with cancer. 

But talking really can help, and going through this alone might make it harder. The trick is to find a way to talk that works for you. It’s also important to speak to the right person. It can help to find someone who will help you put things in perspective, this might be your friends, family members or someone in your care team.  

If you have any medical questions it’s always best to speak to a doctor or nurse – in person or by calling a helpline. If you’re questions aren’t urgent you might find it easier to make a note of them and take it with you to your next appointment.  

Tips for talking to friends and family about cancer

If you’re feeling worried, opening up can really help. And whatever you’re worried about won’t go away if you ignore it. 

It’s totally up to you what you talk about, how you talk about it and who you talk to, but these ideas might help to make conversations a bit easier: 

  • People might avoid talking about cancer because they’re not sure if you want to, so it’s a good idea to let them know if it’s OK, or if you don’t want to talk right now 

  • It can help to start by explaining what you’d like to talk about and if there’s anything you’d rather avoid 

  • Writing things down can help – it can guide your conversation and if you don’t feel up to talking, you could write a letter for people to read in their own time 

  • There might be silences and people might get upset. That’s OK, so try not to let it worry you. Take a few breaths, have a cup of tea or a glass of water and see if you feel ready to keep chatting. If not, don’t force it. Take a break and try again later 

  • Some people prefer to talk while they’re doing something else, so that all the attention isn’t on them. If that sounds like you, think about times that might work – like when you’re in the car, out shopping or watching TV. Or if you prefer to talk somewhere private and quiet, choose somewhere you feel really comfortable 

  • Try not to worry too much beforehand – conversations often seem much worse in your head than they actually turn out to be. Often, talking about this stuff makes everyone feel better 

What if I don’t feel like talking about cancer?

If you don’t feel up to talking to anyone about your cancer there are plenty of other ways to let people know how you’re feeling. 

Here are some ideas for how to manage this: 

  • Send a text, email or write a letter 

  • Take photos, draw pictures or send songs that sum up how you’re feeling 

  • Leave a sign on your bedroom door 

  • Write a blog to let everyone know what’s on your mind 

  • Some people might find it helps to make use of social media channels like YouTube, TikTok or Instagram to document how they’re feeling 

  • Keep a diary, to get your thoughts out even if you don’t want to share them with anyone else 

If your family is really struggling to talk, it can also help to speak to someone whose job it is to help people communicate. Counsellors, social workers, Youth Support Coordinators, doctors and nurses will all be able to give you lots of practical ideas and clinical psychologists are experts in helping people have tricky conversations, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. Even if it feels weird at first, involving someone who’s not so close to the situation can help everyone relax. 

Who should I tell about my cancer diagnosis?

The most important thing to remember that it’s completely up to you who you talk to and tell about your cancer diagnosis.  

You might be thinking about some of the following questions:  

  • Do I have to tell everyone? 

  • How will people react when they find out? 

  • Do I want that person to know? 

  • Am I going to keep this from people? 

If you’re struggling to work out who you want to tell it can help to weigh up the pros and cons before making any decisions.  

You might decide to talk to people because: 

  • Keeping cancer to yourself can be stressful and tiring, whereas being honest can be a relief 

  • Telling your teachers or manager can make it easier to get extra support at school, college, uni or work. This might include having time off for appointments, changing your work hours or avoiding things like heavy lifting or using machinery because you might not feel able to keep doing your normal job safely 

  • You might feel tired or struggle to concentrate because of your treatment, and explaining why can be more straightforward than making something up or avoiding answering questions 

You might decide not to talk to people because:

  • You’re worried about getting a strange reaction and being treated differently 

  • You haven’t got the energy to keep repeating the same story and answering the same questions 

  • You don’t feel comfortable discussing your health, especially if your cancer is affecting a part of your body you wouldn’t normally talk about 

  • You want to keep school, college, uni or work as a place where you’re not defined by cancer 

  • You feel like it’s nobody else’s business 

Talking to your care team about your cancer diagnosis

You might have lots of medical questions about your diagnosis and treatment or you might not know where to start. It can feel really overwhelming if you’ve got a lot to ask, but it can help to write your questions down before your appointments so you don’t forget anything. It’s easy to forget about some things, so try to check the list at the end of your appointment to make sure you’ve asked everything you wanted to. 

If you’re nervous, you could talk through your questions with a friend or family member before your appointment. You could also take someone with you to the appointment for support. If you’re still confused after asking your questions, don’t worry, your care team are there to help talk you through exactly what’s going on. 

They will be used to getting questions about lots of different things, so there’s no need to be embarrassed. Just try to talk through how you’re feeling as honestly as possible. 

Your care team should always listen to you and let you know what needs to happen next. But if you don’t feel you’re being listened to, say so or ask to see another doctor or nurse. And if you don’t understand what they tell you, ask for it to be explained more clearly. There’s no such thing as a silly question, and you can never ask too many questions. 

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