Communication and Cancer

Having cancer can be scary and loving someone with cancer can be sad. How the two of you talk about cancer can either add to your stress or help you find relief. Whether it is your partner, spouse, parent, child or sibling, the communication patterns you choose can lay the groundwork for honesty, compassion, caring, and healing. You get to choose who knows about the cancer, and how much they know. If you are a very private person, you can be very selective about who you talk to, and you can ask them to honor your privacy by not sharing your news with others. If you are more open, you may want to send a group email or begin a blog on a site like . Either way, you control the amount and flow of information, and you can respond to emails if and when you want.  

Just because people call, doesn’t mean you have to answer the phone, or even return all calls. You can change your outgoing message to say something like “I am so grateful for all your well wishes and prayers, but I cannot possibly return all your calls.” Just because they are asking for details of every procedure and every report, does not mean you owe them full answers. You can say “Thanks for caring, it means a lot to me” and leave it at that.

There are polite ways to deflect questions from people who are curious, and unwanted opinions from people who tend to overshare. “Thank you for checking in; we are keeping the details private. I hope you understand.” “Thanks for asking, I know you’ve been worried. I’m doing OK”. If they want to tell you about their distant cousin who had the exact same cancer you do, you can say “I prefer not to hear about other people’s cancer experiences; mine feels like all I can handle.”

With the medical profession, remember that they are people too, with a wide variety of styles. You can ask for what you need by letting them know your preferences. Whether it is “Please don’t tell me my prognosis, I don’t want to know” or “Please tell me all of my options, I want to know the pros and cons of everything available to me”, you have a right to be heard. If you feel rushed at an appointment, you can say “I have a few more questions on my list” or “Should I make another appointment? I am still confused about the side effects of this treatment”.

As you get farther into the cancer journey, your wishes and needs might change and you can let people know – “I know I turned down a lot of invitations at the beginning because I didn’t know how I would feel from one day to the next; now I am ready to socialize again so please include me!” As you come out on the other side of treatment, you might find your outside appearance doesn’t match your inward emotions. When people compliment you on how nice you look, you can say “Thank you, I like my new short hair. But I am still really tired.”

Newly diagnosed, middle of treatment, or in the years to come, try to use honesty and kindness as your guide for your communication. When you could use some support or help, don’t hesitate to ask for that help. You can join a group, or seek other supportive services like those offered at The Gathering Place.

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