Being open and honest with your family/whānau and friends about your cancer diagnosis can help keep your support network strong.

When you are diagnosed with cancer, it can be both a shock and a challenge for you. You may feel alone at times.

Support from your family/whānau and friends can be a great help to you while you cope with cancer.

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How do I tell people about my cancer diagnosis?

It is your choice who you tell about your diagnosis and when you tell them. Here are some suggestions that might help you have those conversations. 

Find a quiet time and a quiet place where you will not be interrupted.

Turn off distractions such as the TV and phone.

Introduce the topic.

Try saying something like: “I’d like to have a conversation about what is going on at the moment with my health. Is that okay?”

Check what they already know before giving more information.

Some people may have a sense of what is going on already. For example, “You might know some of this already, so why don’t you tell me what you make of the situation so far, and then I’ll take it from there”.

Go slowly and ask if they understand because you continue

Give small amounts of information at a time and ask your friend if they understand what you’re saying before you continue. You can say any of several phrases for that purpose, such as

  • “Do you see what I mean?”
  • “Do you follow me?”
  • “Is this making sense?”
  • “Let me know if there is anything you want me to explain." 
There may often be silences, but don’t be put off by them.

You or your friend may find that just being together in the same room without talking is OK. It’s common to feel uncomfortable with silences.

Remember, sometimes people need a moment to process what you are saying.

When you tell someone close to you about your diagnosis, they may feel distressed by the information you tell them.

You might think that you need to be positive and upbeat to make your friend feel better. Or you might want to hide the facts from your friend, so you don’t upset them. It’s helpful to be open about your feelings, so they have a good understanding.

Be prepared for people’s responses, provide clear and honest information and let them know what kind of support you need from them if any. 

Sometimes our friends would like to provide support but are unsure how.

Talking to friends about cancer
Guests bonding at a Cancer Society lodge
Left: Talking to friends about cancer | Right: Guests bonding at a Cancer Society lodge
Left: Talking to friends about cancer | Right: Guests bonding at a Cancer Society lodge

Responding to people’s reactions about your diagnosis

People can react very differently when hearing distressing news. Some might withdraw from you, and others may become closer.

Even if you are the person with cancer, you may have more difficulty dealing with your friend’s emotions than your own.

Your friend might stay away from you rather than face the fact that they have strong emotions but don’t know how to deal with them.

Here are some suggestions for helping both of you.

Try to acknowledge your friend’s feelings.

You might say something like, “You look as if you’re feeling really uneasy when I talk about the cancer,” or “I can understand if hearing this information makes you upset.”

In an ideal world, your friend would be able to explain what they are feeling and then bring the focus to you and what you want to talk about. But this doesn't always happen. You may have to do some of the groundwork to get the support you need.

Don’t be afraid to acknowledge how you feel at the same time

For example, “This is making both of us feel upset,” or “I know you might feel anxious or scared about what’s going to happen next, and so am I.”

The more you know your own feelings and the other person’s, the better the conversation will be.

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When friends stay away

Cancer can change friendships. Some friends handle it well. Others cut off all contact.

Friends stay away for different reasons. They may not be able to cope with their feelings, or what’s happening to you may remind them of

a difficult situation in their past. Your friends can care for you, even when they stay away, but often don’t know what to say.

Need someone to talk to?
8:30 am to 5:00 pm Monday to Friday
0800 226 237 Information nurse

We know that going through cancer is tough and can raise many questions. You are not alone.

We have health professionals to answer your questions and provide the support you need. Get in touch

Last updated: December 22, 2022