Hearing the news


When a lump or a symptom leads your friend to see a health care provider, there may be many days of waiting to have tests done or waiting for test results. During this time, neither you nor your friend knows what you might be dealing with. All kinds of thoughts can go through your friend’s mind and through yours.

This is often a very scary time. If your friend 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 a 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 your friend 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 your friend whether you should plan to go along for the test results.

How the doctor shares a cancer diagnosis with a patient 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 a patient, too. The doctor will also take the cues and questions or anyone with the patient into account.

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. Nurses can often help you better understand what the doctor has told you and are great sources of information and support.

    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're with the patient, try to pay close attention. You may even want to take notes. 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 friend 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 your friend that loved ones, friends, and the cancer care team are available, concerned, and ready to talk about the illness whenever they're ready.

If you are not comfortable talking about cancer, you may not be the best person for your friend to talk with at this time. You may need some time to work through your own feelings. You can even explain to your friend 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 another friend or family member may be able to offer more support at this time. You can suggest that your friend seek support from them.

Make sure your friend 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'd like to find out more on living with cancer and its treatment, see Understanding Your Diagnosis

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: October 1, 2016

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