- How do you talk to someone who has cancer?
- About cancer
- Hearing the news
- Ways people cope with a cancer diagnosis
- Living with cancer
- Sources of support
- Concern for the family and caregivers
- Help and information
- If your loved one decides to stop getting treatment
- If your loved one refuses cancer treatment
- Facing the final stage of life
- Summing up: Talking to the person with cancer
- To learn more
Hearing the news
When a lump or a symptom leads to a trip to the doctor, there may be many days of waiting to have tests done or waiting for test results. During this time you don’t know what you might be dealing with. All kinds of thoughts can go through the patient’s mind and through yours.
This is often a very scary time. If the person who might be facing cancer confides in you, it’s probably because they need to share their worries. They may just need you to listen and try to help them hope for the best. Waiting is always hard, but having someone to wait with eases the burden.
Some people may sense that they have cancer before they hear it from the doctor. Each person responds to a cancer diagnosis in their own way. Some may want to talk about what the doctor said in detail. Others may not want to talk about it at all. Sometimes, the person’s need to talk changes from day to day. Simply asking, “Would you like to talk about it?” is a direct and respectful way to find out what they need.
Finding out it’s cancer
If cancer is found, the doctor should be the one who tells the patient. Is someone going to be with the patient for this visit? Do they want someone to go with them? Think about whether you should be there when the doctor gives the test results. Sometimes when the doctor talks with the patient and a family member or friend at the same time, it gives the patient a feeling of support – they know they’re not facing cancer alone. But some people prefer to keep their talks with the doctor private. Ask the patient whether you should plan to go along for the test results.
How the doctor shares the news with the person who has cancer depends on the doctor’s personal style and sense of the patient’s needs and feelings. These factors affect how much information the doctor gives the patient, too. The doctor will also take the support person’s cues and questions into account when family members or loved ones are there.
Most doctors will be honest about the diagnosis, treatment options, and treatment outlook. An honest approach from the start sets the stage for a trusting relationship among the doctor, patient, and family or friends. This allows for open, frank talks that help the patient make the best choices for their care.
Most doctors make it a policy to be honest about the diagnosis, treatment options, and treatment outlook.
If you go with the patient to get test results
People are often shocked when they first hear the word cancer. It may be hard for them to hear or remember anything else after that. Many people can take in only small amounts of upsetting information. If you are with the patient, try to pay close attention. You may even want to take notes on what the doctor says. Later on, you may be needed to help remember and explain what was said.
When you talk about the doctor visit later, if you sense that your loved one with cancer is having trouble taking in the information you’re sharing, take it slow. Don’t get into a lot of detail all at once. Ask what they’re ready to know. Try to answer specific questions they may have. If the discussion is still too much for them, remind the patient that loved ones and the health care team are available, concerned, and ready to talk about the illness whenever the patient is ready.
If you are not comfortable talking about cancer, you may not be the best person for the patient to talk with at this time. You may need some time and an expert to help you work through your own feelings. You can even explain to your loved one that you are having trouble talking about cancer. Tell them that you would like to talk, but don’t feel you are the best person right now. A social worker, counselor, or other friend or family member may be able to offer more support at this time. You can suggest that your loved one seek support from them.
Make sure the person with cancer understands that your trouble talking is your issue, not theirs. You may also want to mention that you want to be there for support in spite of this, and hope to be there in the future. Explain that you need some time to adjust, too.
If you would like to find out more on living with cancer and its treatment, we have another booklet called After Diagnosis: A Guide for Patients and Families. You can get a copy by calling us, or you can read it on our website.
Last Medical Review: 06/09/2014
Last Revised: 02/05/2015