People diagnosed with cancer may find it awkward, embarrassing or uncomfortable to talk to family and friends about what’s happening to them. There is no right or wrong way to tell people the diagnosis, and how it is done is a very personal decision.
While some women we talked to had partners or close relatives with them when they were told they had ovarian cancer (see ‘Learning the diagnosis’), others were alone and had to break the news to their loved ones. Some told their husbands by phone, but many women wanted to tell partners and close family face-to-face. Often they had little time to think before talking to those closest to them – with hindsight some said they would have done it differently. One young woman broke the news to her husband by saying she wouldn’t be able to have his children (see ‘Fertility’).
A woman who learnt her diagnosis just before her discharge from hospital after hysterectomy waited until her husband had driven her home before telling him what was wrong. Single, divorced or widowed women often told a sister, daughter or close woman friend first.
Waited until her husband had driven her home from hospital before telling him she had cancer.
In the past, cancer was taboo, but nowadays it is talked about much more. Even so, many women we spoke to were anxious about telling family and friends their diagnosis because of how they might react. One had dreaded telling her husband, and several found it particularly difficult telling frail elderly parents. One asked her sister to tell her mother instead, and another delayed telling her mother until she had to explain the arrival of bouquets of flowers. Another felt able to confide in her sister but wrote a letter to her husband and daughter because she feared their reactions.
Was concerned about telling her husband and elderly parents that she had cancer.
Several women mentioned that news travelled fast through friends and via phone calls and email. One woman mentioned her illness in a ’round robin’ letter to friends and family at Christmas.
Many women relied upon a few people to spread the word among family, friends or colleagues. Some women felt relieved when everybody knew because they no longer had to go through the pain of telling them. Others preferred not to tell certain people (such as sick or elderly relatives) about their diagnosis or to restrict the knowledge to a select few. However, for one of these women the information got out when a second operation was planned, which was later cancelled. Women’s decisions about how widely to make the diagnosis known was often affected by whether or not they expected to lose their hair as a result of chemotherapy (see ‘Unwanted effects of chemotherapy’).
Was relieved when the news that she had cancer had reached everyone.
Wanted to limit the number of people who knew she had cancer but more people found out later.
Some felt that losing their hair would make it obvious to others that they had cancer, whereas if they kept it they could continue to appear normal.
Was concerned that if she lost her hair from chemotherapy everyone would know she had cancer.
Working women had to tell close colleagues about their diagnosis, and some had to decide what to tell clients to explain their absence. A company director felt that her company would be damaged if people knew she had cancer, so she and her immediate family decided that no-one else should be told about it. She reversed the decision when her cancer recurred and she no longer felt able to maintain her responsibilities.
Told close colleagues all about her cancer while telling clients the minimum they needed to know.
Kept the diagnosis a secret outside her immediate family in order to protect her business, until…
Finding the right moment to tell the news to wider family was important. Some initially kept their illness a secret from their families because it was not clear what would happen and they did not want to cause worry. One was given a date just after Christmas for surgery to remove her ovarian cyst but didn’t tell her family until the night before the operation. Another knew that cancer cells had been found in fluid taken from her cyst but did not tell her family that she had cancer until after her operation. One woman decided that the right moment to tell her sister and mother was when she was feeling optimistic after she had seen her oncologist. A woman whose sister was on a short holiday abroad delayed telling her because she didn’t want her to feel obliged to return.
Described the consequences of her decision not to tell her family she had cancer until after her…
When telling other people about their cancer, some women said they related, in a straightforward way, what had happened and what they had been told. Others tried to present as positive an attitude as possible so that those receiving the news could follow their example and not feel uncomfortable. Some initially found it hard to use the word ‘cancer’. One woman had felt guilty about having to tell people such a shocking thing. Another said that, when an acquaintance asked about her experience at the hospital, she had replied flippantly.
Tried to be as upbeat as possible about her diagnosis to make it easier for other people to deal…
Initially found it difficult to say the word ‘cancer’ but believed that doing so helped people to…
Talking with children about cancer can be especially difficult, and women we spoke to were rarely offered advice on how to do this. Macmillan Cancer Support provides advice for parents with cancer. Children can cope better with a parent’s cancer if they are told what is going on in a way that they can understand. Some women described telling their young children about their illness in simple terms without saying it was serious. One said she hadn’t wanted her children to see her while she was connected to drips and catheters in case this frightened them, although other young children were keen to visit and see the scar. Many with small children or grandchildren said they saw no need to tell them that their illness was cancer until they were older.
Describes how she and her husband explained to their three-year-old daughter about her illness.
One woman described her concerns about telling her grown-up sons that her cancer had returned and that she might not have long to live. Another found it easier to tell her son after discussing it with his partner.