How to talk about cancer can be very touchy.
If you’re the person facing a diagnosis, you want to communicate the right information without giving too much information. You want to be honest, but also not scare your loved ones.
For caregivers and friends, sometimes you don’t know what to say. You have your own emotions about it but don’t want to make your loved to have to worry about how you’re handling it. See our ‘How to Support Someone Through Cancer: What to Say, What Not to Say’ article for caregivers.
At Cancer Services, we know this is an issue. We work with people facing cancer to provide tips and talking points and also offer the community some ideas on how to support someone through cancer. Here are the basics that we suggest:
For the person facing cancer:
How do you tell someone you have cancer?
Practice having a short response such as, “Last month I found out that I have colon cancer. It’s been scary and sad for me and my family, but I have a great team of medical professionals and caregivers who are helping me.”
Once you let someone know that you have been diagnosed, it is suggested that you reassure that you are doing whatever it takes to fight the cancer and would like their support and encouragement.
Remember, it’s okay to cry!
- Often, it’s easier to communicate information through a family member or Website www.caringbridge.com – a free resource that can help to update your community of friends and family. Privacy can be controlled by you.
- Appointing a spokesperson can keep loved ones in the loop without wearing you out.
How do you answer the “How can I help?” question:
Allow friends and family to help you. It helps them feel they are part of your life. Allowing them to help is like giving them a gift. But be specific!
TIPS for starting the conversation:
- “I really need a ride, would you take me to my next appointment on ________ at __________.”
- “Can you help with laundry/yard work/child care/housecleaning?”
- “I’m looking for ways to get my mind off treatment. Will you be sure to invite me to do something fun? Friday nights are good for me.”
When someone asks to help, try to avoid saying: “Oh, nothing right now. We’re just fine.”
Questions people might have:
- How long do you have to live?
- Are you going to die?
- What kind of treatment will you get?
- Are you going to be sick?
- Will you lose your hair?
- Will it grow back?
- Are they going to do surgery?
- Will you have to quit work?
- Are you coming back to work?
- Who is taking care of the kids?
- When will you be done with treatment?
Be prepared to answer some of these questions, but REMEMBER, you have the right to stop someone if they ask a question you don’t want to answer, or if they start telling a story you’re not ready to hear!
How can you politely interrupt someone when you don’t feel like talking about your cancer?
- “Thank you so much for your concern, but I need to focus on something else today.” Follow-up by asking about themselves or their family.
- “Thank you for asking, but I’d rather not talk about it right now”
- “You know, usually I am okay to talk about things like this, but today I just can’t handle it. I’m sure you understand.”
- “I’d prefer to not go into details”.
How to respond to inappropriate things people say:
If someone says:
- Did you smoke?
- How did you get it?
Respond with: “What do you mean by that?” or “Does it matter?”
If someone says:
- Why didn’t you tell me sooner?
- You don’t look sick!
Respond with: “I appreciate your sentiments. I’m doing my best to handle the challenges that this diagnosis has brought me.”
If someone shares a story with a bad ending.
Respond with: “I appreciate your concern, but I’m trying to stay away from negative conversation.”
You can also take the pressure off of unwanted advice by leaning on your medical team and saying, “My doctor/nurse/medical team told me to concentrate on my treatment plan.”
How to avoid pitfalls in communication:
- Don’t neglect a friend/relative who may need to talk with you. Connect with them by saying, “How are you doing? Can you believe ___?”
- Don’t set up a false front or “happy face” if you don’t feel that way. Share your true feelings.
- Don’t ignore someone you haven’t heard from. Reach out to that person, and encourage them to stay in touch.
For a PRINTABLE HANDOUT with this information click here: Talking Cancer with Friends and Family Tip Sheet.
For the tips on how friends, family, caregivers, and co-workers can support someone they know through cancer, read our How to Support Someone Through Cancer: What to Say, What Not to Say article.