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Ovarian Cancer

Telling the news

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.

Waited until her husband had driven her home from hospital before telling him she had cancer.

Age at interview: 65
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 62
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So I recovered from the operation quite quickly and on the 6th day I was due to come home and they said 'well we'll give you the results that we've found'. So they called me into a little room and there was, oh I don't know, the sister, the two doctors, there seemed to be a crowd of them, and they sat me there and said that they'd found a cancer. And I, you know, it's not happening, you know, you 'it's, it was a cyst, what do you mean it's cancer?' They said 'well we've caught it in the very early stages' he said 'it's just, it's all within itself' he said 'it's attached to your bowel, it attached to the lining of your stomach' he said, but he said 'we've got it' he said 'we should be okay'. He said 'we'll get our oncologist to come and have a word with you later on'. 

So when the Oncologist came he was extremely nice, he explained what they'd found, 'this cancer' he said, but he said 'I'd like to give you chemotherapy'.  

So I, pretty numb really, my husband was waiting for me so he said, he said 'what, you know, what was the problem?' I said 'oh well we'll get home first'. So we drove home, so we had a cup of tea and we sat where we are now and I said 'there's good news and there's bad news'. So I told him the bad news which it was cancer, I said 'the good news is they've caught it, there's no problem but they're going to give me chemotherapy to be on the safe side'.

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.

Was concerned about telling her husband and elderly parents that she had cancer.

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 50
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Was it difficult telling other people about your diagnosis?

I think I was probably more bothered for them than I was for myself. Certainly with my husband, I was' I was dreading telling him. I think, I knew that I'd handle it better than he would. And he was out at work at the time, and I phoned him, and the line went quiet, so I knew he was crying. And he said, 'Right, I'll be there', you know, and even though he's out delivering and whatever, but I was quite calm and collected really.  

I was bothered about telling my parents, I think because of my mum being ill, you know, and I felt sorry' and them being of an age, I felt sorry for my dad especially, because, you know, he had his wife and his daughter all at the same time to deal with, sort of thing, you know, and he was more or less my mum's' well, he was my mum's main carer, so he had it all to do, and he suffers from emphysema anyway, so it was difficult for him.  

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.

Was relieved when the news that she had cancer had reached everyone.

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 56
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So how did you go about telling your family and friends?

Well I can't remember really. I suppose they just came to the hospital and told people one by one as, as was appropriate I suppose really. My youngest son I didn't tell him for a few days because, I can't remember what he was doing, but it was, and I think, I think my friend phoned round a lot of people though. I've got a friend who supported me a lot and I know he phoned round quite a lot of people. And so I think most, you know, a lot of it was by phone really, because a lot, most of my relations and that aren't here.

Was it difficult telling them?

I found it ever so difficult whenever I told anybody. And like, you know, even when I, like my neighbour came across one day when I came out of hospital, you know, and I had to say to her and I found it ever so difficult, every time I had to tell anybody. And I was actually really quite pleased when everybody knew, because it, because I then, I didn't have to go over it every single time, you know, it, it was such a relief after about 3 weeks when everybody knew I'd got cancer and then that was it. And then it, that was a, you know, that was a great relief 'cause I could just sort of be more normal, but then everybody treated me so differently that that was quite difficult.  

 

Wanted to limit the number of people who knew she had cancer but more people found out later.

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Wanted to limit the number of people who knew she had cancer but more people found out later.

Age at interview: 38
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 33
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And you didn't tell many people about your diagnosis initially, did you?

No. I mean, parents, obviously brothers and siblings. The guy who worked for, well was my junior. The healthcare, the acupuncturist, the girl who was my bridesmaid, and that was basically it. I mean subsequently a couple of people were told because things kind of got in the way, you know, where I couldn't do something because of it, or whatever. And the timing, so I had to tell a few people. And then I guess, you know, more people had to be told when I was going to go in the second time. That was very hard actually, very, very hard.

But in the end it didn't happen, so they weren't told?

Oh yeah but it got around, it had definitely got around.

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.

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Was concerned that if she lost her hair from chemotherapy everyone would know she had cancer.

Age at interview: 38
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 33
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I think the second time round it was like, God this is going to be a long battle, you know, a really long battle, and, you know, everyone's going to know, I'm going to have, all my hair's going to come out, what am I going to do? Everyone's going to know, you know, what's going on, and that was, I think, more of the concern really. 

It would really kind of throw your life into turmoil, and change the way that other people saw you.

Yes I think so, yeah, you know, because I always' I mean I suppose now when I'm out in the street, if you sort of see somebody with like, you know, no hair or, you know, they've got a scarf on or something like that, a woman, and you think well, you know, pretty sad really. 

So I think that, it's the visible thing is very important actually. It was very important to me, and it's not because I'm especially vain, I don't think, I think it was just the fact that everybody would know, you know? And there is an embarrassment factor I think people feel, like, oh God, you know, I sort of stand out, I'm not normal, and you know'.

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.

Told close colleagues all about her cancer while telling clients the minimum they needed to know.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 53
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Work, I decided to be up-front from the beginning. I worked with a very close, small team. I and my 3 colleagues had worked together for 8 years and we were more than work colleagues, we were friends and so I was up-front. I came and told them exactly what was wrong. They were upset but very supportive, excellent they've been. The elderly people at work that was a different matter. We told them that I'd had to have a serious operation and that I'd be off work for a while. And as I say, because nobody knew that I'd got a wig on, it wasn't necessary to say any more. Had they noticed or what have you, it might have been different but no, we didn't say anything more to them. And when I retired we more or less just said that I had been seriously ill and that I felt that I needed some time to myself so we felt it was better to leave and they accepted that.

 

Kept the diagnosis a secret outside her immediate family in order to protect her business, until...

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Kept the diagnosis a secret outside her immediate family in order to protect her business, until...

Age at interview: 62
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 60
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Well the first thing was the decision that I didn't have much option but carry on, because at the time there wasn't anybody ready to hand on to. We were actually part way through the process of head-hunting a new chief executive, and the idea had been I would remain as chairman and the new person would take over.

So I decided that from the point of view of the business it would be damaging if people knew that I had cancer and that there was no need for them to know. We took this decision as a family, that we would tell no one, which in someways was quite hard because it meant you had to find excuses for the days that you felt really ill.

In some ways it increased the pressure, and I know my children, who were taking it quite badly, wanted to tell their friends and in-laws. So it didn't just put more pressure on myself to try to be normal when I wasn't feeling normal, but it put pressure on them because they couldn't use their own support mechanisms.

On the other-hand, having to behave as though there was nothing wrong was wonderful therapy because I just couldn't wallow, I had to be absolutely normal and just carry on and be as cheerful as I usually am. In a way it didn't just hoodwink everybody else, it hoodwinked me. And I think that was quite positive really.

In fact we didn't tell anyone until the problems arrived at Easter when it became obvious that I wasn't going to be able to continue to work full time. Furthermore, if something could flare up as quickly as that, it wasn't right to be in a situation where people were reliant on me.

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...

Described the consequences of her decision not to tell her family she had cancer until after her...

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 38
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I decided not to tell my parents and I decided not to tell my sister and my brother because I didn't know what to tell them, I didn't want them to have the worry that we were having. And so I, I spent a weekend of trying to be quite jolly, which was extremely difficult. Not being able to eat anything and just pretend that I had a tummy upset. I did say that I had to go in for a minor op that Monday, just a small gynae problem, and was very relieved when Monday morning came and went into  hospital.  

When I do look back on how I spent the Saturday with my mum and didn't tell her, I don't know how I did that. And I had to put on this front of being my normal self. And obviously the conversation would have revolved around certain things which I knew this new diagnosis was going to have a terrible impact on, and yet I still, you know, decided that I wasn't going to say anything. 

And I had a phone call, I had a phone conversation with my sister and that was very difficult, you know, I just, at one stage I just wanted to tell her, and at another stage I thought 'no, I'm not going to tell her until I know exactly what I have to tell her' because I just knew the impact that it would have on them.

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...

Tried to be as upbeat as possible about her diagnosis to make it easier for other people to deal...

Age at interview: 33
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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But I was just me and right really from the beginning it was a case of you can't go backwards, you have to go forwards, there's absolutely nothing you can do about this, and I remember sitting in the, well I was lying in my bed all piped up with all sorts of things, and I remember actually sitting laughing with my husband, my mum and my dad. I don't know, I can't remember what, but it was great because it was almost like, 'well I can still laugh', and it was much easier for friends and family if I was chatty, yappy, myself, much easier for them if I was like that, and it was also much easier for me knowing that I wasn't actually making it difficult for people to approach me, because what I realised very quickly as well was that people were terribly embarrassed. People were, didn't know what to say, people didn't know how to act, and if I was as much myself as I could be I would get more support because people weren't scared to support me. So I learnt that very early on.

 

Initially found it difficult to say the word 'cancer' but believed that doing so helped people to...

Initially found it difficult to say the word 'cancer' but believed that doing so helped people to...

Age at interview: 66
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 56
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I did at first find it very difficult to, not to appreciate that I had cancer because I think I'd already guessed, it was finding out what sort. But I found it very difficult to actually say it. Once I'd said it, once I could say to somebody "I have cancer, I have ovarian cancer". Once you've said it half a dozen times it is the same as saying "I have diabetes, I have high blood pressure', whatever. And I try to do that, I try to tell people to actually say the word, to get other people to talk about it. And it's quite, once you do that, once you've broken that barrier I find it very encouraging and I would, and I do say that to other people, try to actually say it because it's not a dirty secret and in the past I think it almost has been.  

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.

Describes how she and her husband explained to their three-year-old daughter about her illness.

Age at interview: 41
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 38
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So how old was your daughter?

Three at the time, she's now six.

And what did you tell her?

Well the way we put it to her was that mummy had wonky cells and these wonky cells had made her very poorly. Because she was still quite shocked by the fact that mummy was in hospital, or had been in hospital. And I remember when they came to see me the following day after the operation she just stood there going "Mummy come home, mummy come home," and it was quite heartbreaking because she just couldn't understand. It's a big thing. I remember her even turning round and saying "Daddy will go back to work and you come home," you know, so she just wanted to get a bit of normality. And she couldn't understand why I was there and why I wasn't at home.  

And my husband was great because he said "Well do you remember on Animal Hospital how the doctors have to, you know, perform an operation to make the animals better? Well that's what's happened with mummy," and you know, and it was just a real Godsend because then immediately she could understand and she wanted to see where they'd cut me. And you were thinking 'oh no, no, no', you know, and then you thought 'well maybe it's better then she can understand' and, you know, after that she sort of realised that things weren't the same.  

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.

 

Describes her concerns about telling her grown-up sons that her cancer had returned and she may...

Describes her concerns about telling her grown-up sons that her cancer had returned and she may...

Age at interview: 58
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 49
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I could tell my niece but I thought 'What do I tell my boys? Do I just say 'oh my cancer's come back' or 'I'm not too good' or I don't know what, or do I spell it out to them?' And I thought 'Well they're in their thirties, you know, they're not', and I didn't want to tell them but my husband said 'if it was my mum I would want to know and I would be very upset if I didn't know'. 

So I did and I thought 'well I'm not telling them on the phone' and we went up to London and my son and his wife had just bought a house in London and we went up to have, they were seeing decorators and everything and the only way I could get the two boys together was say 'look I'll meet you at the house and I want to talk to you' and they thought I wanted to talk about, about my ex's money, you know, about what's going to happen when he dies, and I actually phoned my ex and told him what I was going to tell them, and he'd lost his mother when she was forty eight with cancer, and he was very upset about it and he said 'I thought you wanted to talk to them about me, you know, and leaving, what you're going to do with my money'. I said 'no nothing', and he was very concerned and I said 'I'm going to tell them, I'm just preparing you, (because one of them still lived with him), be prepared to tell them, you know, sympathise with them, but I am going to tell them what it's about'.  


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Last reviewed June 2016.

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