As hard as it may be to deal with your diagnosis, it is important to talk to others about what is happening and the uncertainty the future now brings. Your family and friends may worry about you and want to know how you are feeling and how they can help.

Discussing the progression of your illness and even end of life decisions may be draining, but avoiding the subject only makes it harder to cope. Indeed, talking about your feelings, hopes and dreams can be healing and comforting.

From a practical perspective, the people around you need to understand your needs, plans and wishes, especially if you are likely to get to a point where you cannot make decisions for yourself.

Regardless of their reaction, talking openly and honestly in an age-appropriate way will assist them to understand your illness.

What may help

Plan your chat

Think about what you want to say and how you will respond to questions. You may find it useful to write this down and refer to it during your interactions. Find a quiet time when you are least likely to be interrupted and ensure that is also a good time for the person you want to speak to. The last thing you want is to have this conversation with someone who is tired and stressed.

Tips

When discussing your diagnosis and illness with those around you:
  • Speak from the heart - use direct language that describes how you are feeling.
  • Allow time for the other person to talk, in case they want to ask questions or discuss their own feelings.
  • Don't try to cover everything - there is probably much to discuss, but you may need to allow time for bits of information to digest.

Telling the children

As for “telling the kids”, that is never going to be easy for either you or them, but do not be tempted to shield them from upsetting news. Children often know when there is something wrong and may immediately think the worst.

Children and teenagers may react to the news in different ways, whether it be anger, confusion, sadness or denial. Plan what you want to tell them and deliver the news in a language they can understand. Young children can be confused by too much information, whereas emotionally mature teenagers may feel they are left hanging with too little information.

Tips

When discussing your diagnosis and illness with children and teenagers:
  • Always be honest - in times of uncertainly, honesty is often the one thing children can depend on.
  • Encourage them to ask questions and answer them as fully as you can.
  • Explain the impact on them - children and most teenagers are fairly ego-centric and need to know their everyday lives will be affected.
  • Be as positive as possible but avoid making promises.
  • Listen to their thoughts and feelings without judgement.

Talk to a professional

If you need assistance talking to your family and friends, counselling from a mental health professional may help. If you do not want or need professional help, your carer, family or friends can always make appointments for themselves.

Take the lead

Some of your family, friends or colleagues may be unsure of how to talk with you. They may be worried about saying the wrong thing or about whether they should mention your illness.

It may pay for you to take the lead. Acknowledge your illness with them and give them some tips on how you wish to be treated, and what you are happy to talk about with them and when. Many people with advanced cancer say this openness often relieves the awkwardness.

For more information

  • The Cancer Council has a booklet, When a Parent Has Cancer: How to Talk to Your Kids, which is not specific to advanced cancer but contains useful information, call 13 11 20 to have it sent to you.
  • The US National Cancer Institute has helpful information about talking with partners and children.
  • A US website, Cancer Care, also has information about communicating with family.


Life, Hope & Reality was developed and written by Afaf Girgis, Claire Johnson, and Sylvie Lambert with funding from the NHMRC and Cancer Council NSW.

Last updated 30 August 2015