Pancreatic Cancer

Telling others about the illness

People diagnosed with cancer may find it awkward, embarrassing or uncomfortable to tell family and friends what's happening to them. Most people we interviewed were deeply shocked when they received the diagnosis (see ‘Hearing the diagnosis and prognosis’) and some wanted time to absorb the news themselves before they told anyone else. Others delayed until they felt the time was right. For instance Helen did not tell her husband until he arrived home from work, or her son until he came home from university. However, Ben told his family immediately after he arrived home from the hospital as ‘it’s no use hiding something like that away’. Some people told their relatives face to face but others had to phone relatives who lived far away.
Most people said that family members had been shocked and upset, but had been very supportive. However, not everyone had support. Peter (Interview 13) had to cope with his illness without his wife’s support. A few people thought that relatives seemed to be ‘in denial’. Dorothy’s grown-up children helped her ‘make the best of the situation’. Once a stent had been fitted to relieve her symptoms she felt quite well. No other treatment was planned, so she and her children just ‘carried on as if nothing had happened’.
Most people told their close family and friends about the diagnosis before spreading the word amongst friends and acquaintances. Lilian decided to make an announcement about her illness at a meeting of the Women’s Institute. She knew that she would have to give up her role as treasurer and she thought it would be better to tell people what had happened herself than to risk gossip and whispers. People found that other people knew even less about pancreatic cancer than they did, which was sometimes difficult.
Most people’s friends had been very supportive too, especially if they had been through cancer themselves. Friends offered practical and emotional support. However, some friends found the subject embarrassing and had avoided them. Others recalled that friends had broken down when they heard the bad news and their negative or emotional reactions had been hard to cope with. In that situation the people we interviewed felt they had to support their friends, at a time when they needed the support themselves. Some commented that it could be harder for the ‘helpless onlooker’ to deal with the news than it was for the person who was ill. Sometimes other people’s reactions seemed more fitting for a death than for an illness.
Rory and her husband kept friends informed about her progress by sending out regular updates by email. This helped - it meant that friends didn't have to keep ringing up; getting news in this way saved them embarrassment.
Telling others was especially difficult when the prognosis was bad or when doctors had found a recurrence. Lesley was with her brother-in-law when a doctor told her that her cancer had spread to her liver and there was nothing more he could do. Lesley didn't want to tell her partner immediately because he was waiting for some test results for prostate cancer, and she thought that if he knew she was going to die then he wouldn't bother to get his results, not caring if he lived or died. She told him two days later.
Telling teenagers or younger children was the most difficult thing of all. Ben told his teenage children exactly what was happening. They knew that they could talk to his Macmillan nurse about his illness. When Alison was diagnosed with cancer she also felt that it was important to tell her children the truth. William’s nurses gave him some useful written information about how to talk to his teenage children. He told them that he was ill and needed surgery but he didn't tell them that his condition was ‘terminal’. He didn't want to be ‘brutal’ nor did he give them false hope. When Helen had a recurrence she told her 13-year-old son that she was having more treatment but she didn't tell him that the cancer was back. She wanted to give him information gradually. However, she was more honest with her 23-year-old.
Most people said that their teenage children were shocked and upset and cried when they first got bad news but then appeared to handle the situation really well. Lesley’s 11-year-old daughter looked at Riprap, a website for young people who have a parent with cancer.
David (Interview 30) and Fiona’s sons were still at primary school when she was diagnosed with cancer. One day David was with their younger son and he told him about his Mum’s illness. At the same time Fiona talked to their elder son and told him what was happening.
Simon and Karen had very young children when Karen was diagnosed with cancer. The baby was only four months old and their little girl was three. The hospital gave them helpful information about how to talk to children. The Winston’s Wish charity website was useful too.

Grandchildren may also be involved. Ann didn't want her grandchildren to know about her poor prognosis months and months in advance of her death, but she did want them to be prepared for it. Several people said they encouraged young children to ask questions about the illness. Maureen answered all her grandchildren’s questions but did not give them too many details about her illness. She liked to keep things ‘simple but not secret’. 

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Last reviewed September 2018.


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