Breast Cancer in women

How it affects others

Although some women talked about their illness only with family, many others discussed their diagnosis with people outside the family, including friends, colleagues and neighbours. While it was often difficult telling other people they had cancer, women praised the support and practical help they received from others.


Telling other people you have cancer can be difficult. Ingrid found it helpful to tell a few...

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Age at interview: 61
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 58

I think one of the toughest things actually is telling people you’ve got cancer at that stage. Because everybody is stunned and shocked when you do tell them. And there is no easy way of telling anybody.

And what I did was I set up a sort of system to some extent in that my husband would do the family, and [friend’s name] did colleagues and friends at that side and passed on. And it was [colleagues’ names], they took on, between the two of them, they passed on the information to other people who needed to know. And then it was, the phone calls that my, oh yes that was the other thing, telling your parents is almost the worst thing. And coping with my mother. There my brother was brilliant.

So it was my brother who took care of my mother, and helping her deal with it. And my other brother dealt with my father. So that worked. So that [husband’s name] wasn’t having to tell people repeatedly how I was, that field system worked as well at the key times it was, [my husband] would contact my brothers, and [my colleagues], and that was it. So that, at every stage, when something needed to be passed on, those were the people he contacted, and that was it. It made it easier for him. That was a system that definitely worked, doing it that way, having sort of key contact people which then took pressure off my husband as well.

Yes and actually I didn’t have too many visitors, didn’t want too many visitors, because, as I just said, everybody means well but you actually having visitors is stressful. And if you have visitors where, you know, you don’t have to put on a show, that’s fine. And those are only those who are really close to you where you know that you don’t have to put on a show, or pull yourself together. And those people are few and far between. So if you keep it to that, if it’s sometimes just opening your eyes and seeing that your husband’s in the room with you, or knowing that he’s in the house with you, that’s fine.


Gillian’s husband told other people that she had cancer. When she spoke to them, they already...

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Age at interview: 55
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 51

The first time the only person I think I told was my boss because I’d told her I had to go back to the hospital for the results. And I phoned her and said, you know, but I honestly think I got [husband’s name] to tell everybody else mainly because, and also the second time, the second time probably more so. Not that I minded talking about it, but I thought if I tell them its like, “What are we going to say to her?” So at least by [husband’s name] talking to, telling them, then I mean obviously I did speak to them, but they’d had time almost like to get used to it. Because I thought if I ring them up and say, especially “I’ve got cancer again.” They’ll be like, “What?” you know.

So I think the only person I told the second time was [friend’s name] because I was seeing, I saw her after I’d had the biopsy. And I think we went out actually, had gone out for an evening. And I told her that I might, you know, have it again. And of course she ends up in tears, and I’m like, and that’s what I think I didn’t want. So in general, on both occasions I felt it was easier for me and I think easier for them that [husband’s name] told them. Because then they could sympathise with him, but they sort of got themselves together before they spoke to me.

Friends often offered support and encouragement, and many women found it helpful to talk with other people. Some women explained how discussing their experiences of breast cancer also raised awareness of the disease. Several described how they broke the news of their diagnosis to friends, and one woman described how, on hearing about her illness, her church group visited her at home. A few women also discussed the help and support neighbours had given.


Describes the very different responses she got from friends when she told them about her diagnosis.

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Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 18
And then came the task of ringing round and telling all my friends.

I think I'd come to terms with it so much so that it sounded like a script that I was just reeling off after a while.

There was no emotion there when I was saying it, and I tried to detach myself from that because otherwise I'd make them distraught on the phone as well. 

And so they were all, you know, a few of my friends were really' "Oh I'm coming to see you right now, I'm setting off now, I need to see you," you know, really supportive.

And I think that's through dealing with things differently because some friends heard it over the phone and said' "Right I've got to go, my tea's ready, the oven's beeping, you know, see you, bye."

And it was, that sort of, it made me feel a bit upset but I understood that they didn't want to be upset and make me upset on the phone. So it was, they were only thinking of me anyway.

And I had so many cards and so many phone calls.

Comments on the advantages of letting people know the truth and on the consequent support she...

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Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 56
And there's no point in not telling people.

I made sure, because I live in a small village, and before I went into hospital I made sure that key people knew why I was going into hospital, what was going to be done, so that silly rumours didn't start circulating.

And I said you know "Do tell anybody you want to, there's no point in keeping it quiet."

And, you know, as a consequence of that you get enormous support.

Cards, I mean my room is, you know, covered in cards and that is, it's very uplifting to know there are other people out there, both with experience of cancer and those without.

Several women, however, felt that some people, including friends, reacted with too much shock, as if a cancer diagnosis meant terminal illness, and that their attitude towards them changed. A few felt that friends found the news of their diagnosis difficult to cope with, though other people were unexpectedly supportive.

Text onlyRead below

Explains why people's reactions towards her diagnosis surprised her.

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Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 46
Now then support's an issue that needs to be raised because friends who I would've expected support from shunned me and that hurts. That really, that's really difficult to come to terms with that, you know what have I done, is it my fault I've got cancer?

But the converse is true, people who I wouldn't have dreamed would've even turned a hair were absolutely fantastic, overwhelming, you know. The people where my husband works, I don't even know them, they sent me all sorts of nice stuff.

Neighbours who I hardly know visited, offered to do laundry, offered to do everything you know. It's kind of one extreme to the other.

You know, people who you hardly know are falling over themselves to help and people who you'd expect would've had a kind word or even sent a get well card nothing, you know. So make of that what you will.

And apparently that, with the support group, that's quite common you know. People either run to the hills or they'll be right next to you standing by you.

Many women explained that, on learning about their diagnosis, colleagues were helpful and understanding. Some women said they told colleagues themselves about their cancer while others preferred someone else, such as a manager, to relate the news. Women also discussed the support they received from other patients, some of whom became good friends (see 'Support groups').


Explains that she asked her boss to tell colleagues about her illness, and that she received a...

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Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 48
When I went for the initial appointment and I phoned my immediate boss and I told her that it was cancer.

And she said' "What do you want me to tell everybody?"

I said' "Well tell them I've got a chest infection," and to wait until I'd been to the doctor's the second time.

So I went, I went back the next night and I phoned [name] to confirm it and she said' "Well what do you want me to do?"

I said' "Well just tell them."

I said' "There's no point in keeping it a secret because it's going to come out, I can't hide it."

So when I went back to work, I actually went back to work on the Friday, there was a bunch of flowers on my desk.

And that was really touching, that brought the tears on.

"And they were marvellous, they were really, really kind, they were very good and they just didn't, they didn't treat me any differently, which was good."

And I suppose partly because I didn't, I didn't act any differently.

I just got on with life and with my work, and did whatever was necessary.

Last reviewed August 2018.
Last updated June 2010.

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