How to tell friends you have cancer

Telling your friends about your cancer diagnosis can be tough. It will mean dealing with their reactions on top of the emotions you’re already feeling. There’s no real way to know how they’ll respond. They might be supportive, they might struggle at first or they could disappoint you. But the way you choose to tell them can help them handle the shock and emotion.

Decide who to tell

Think about who you are closest to. Is there anyone you trust or you feel you need support from? If you only want to tell a few people, one person or even no-one, that is fine. It is your choice. Just make sure you are clear you do not want them to tell anyone else.

Plan how you will tell them

The main thing to remember is that there’s no right or wrong way to go about this. You could tell friends directly, ask someone to tell them for you, write a letter or text. You may not want to tell anyone at this stage – and that’s fine. It’s your choice and good friends will always respect that.

You can also decide how much you want to tell them. Remember you’re in control of how much you wish to share about your cancer and treatment. Do not be afraid to say if you’d rather not go into detail about some things.

Understand your own feelings

Before talking to your friends, it can help to think about how you are feeling. Are you angry? Sad? Do you want to talk about it or take your mind off things?

Understanding your own feelings will help you explain to your friends how they can help you.

Approach the subject gradually

It can help to introduce the subject of cancer gradually with your friends. Do this in the way which feels best for you. You could try starting with phrases like ‘I need to tell you something important’ or ‘you know I’ve been feeling ill, I had some tests and…’.

Break the news down into small pieces

Your friends might not know as much about cancer as you do at this stage. It can help to break it down into small pieces. Say a few sentences and then stop to check if your friend understands what you have told them.

They might be in shock. Taking a few breaks can help them process. It can also give you time to check how sharing the news is making you feel.

You might not want to go into too much detail at first. You might want to give them some information leaflets or show them website links which explain more about your cancer.

Be sure to understand their feelings

When it comes to cancer, people sometimes respond in ways we do not expect. While some will be supportive and understanding, others may need time to come to terms with the situation. This can feel hurtful, especially if it seems like they’re avoiding you or the subject. But chances are it’s because they don’t know what to do or say.

To help with this, you might want to make the first contact. Let them know you’re going through a tough time and you really need them right now. Give them a chance to process the news. In the end, your friends will recognise it took courage for you to speak up and all the reasons you got along in the first place remain unchanged.

You might also find some people are overly positive. This is normally because they want to support you. But phrases like ‘fighting’ and ‘battling’ might make you feel like you should have more control over your situation than you do. Again, be honest about how you are feeling.

Reach out to the people you want to and be honest about what you need. If they let you down, it’s not you, it’s them.

Tell the truth

Be honest about how you are feeling. Try not to say you are fine if you need support. Good friends would rather know if they can do anything to help.

You should only share what you are comfortable with. But telling the truth about the impact of treatment can help you cope with the stress. It can also help those close to you support you.

Talk about what worries you

There are lots of things which might be worrying you at the moment. It might be how cancer is going to affect your job, side effects of treatment or even not knowing how successful your treatment is likely to be.

No matter what you are worried about, talking to someone you trust can help. They might not be able to fix it but they can be there for you.

Tell friends how they can help you

Your friends will probably ask how they can help you. You might not feel you want anything right now and that is fine. You might want help but be unsure how to ask. You might even be unsure what you want help with.

It can help to write a list of what matters to you. This will help you work out how your friends can help you.

If they’re keen to get informed, show them our guide for friends. It will help them to understand what you’re up against, practical things they can do to help you, and how to get support for themselves.

A guide for your friend

Changes to friendships

You might find some friendships become even more important. Having people around that you can count on for a laugh and a chat might just be what you need. But it’s also easy to become distant. Your new routine can make it tricky to keep in touch in the same way.

Making the effort to be in regular contact and telling people what’s been happening can be draining. You won’t always know the latest news and it may seem as though some friends are moving on with their lives. You might also drift apart as you have different experiences now.

It’s normal for friendships to come and go. What matters is that you stay connected with the friends you value.

Keeping them up to date with progress

You might want to tell your friends about every stage of your treatment. Or, you might decide you only want to tell them certain things. It is totally up to you.

Telling lots of people the same thing over and over again can be tiring. You might want to tell one person you trust and ask them to share it with the rest of your friends.

Remember, it is okay to make small talk. Talking about something other than cancer can help take your mind off things.

How to tell someone you have cancer in a letter

The idea of telling your friends face-to-face can be scary. A letter lets you write down exactly what you want to say. You can then talk about it with your friend once they have had time to process and you feel ready.

Just writing the letter can be helpful. You might even decide to read it to your friend. If you do this, ask them to wait until you finish before asking questions.

How to tell a group of friends you have cancer

If you have a close group of friends you might want to tell them all at the same time. Think carefully about if there is anyone who would be hurt by this or who might need more time and space to deal with it.

You might want to meet up with your friends somewhere you feel comfortable. They might get upset so think about somewhere with privacy.

If you have a group chat, you might decide to share the news this way. But, again, think about how your friends might feel about this.

You need to do what is right for you. But thinking about how your friends might feel can make it easier for them to support you in the long run.

How to say you have cancer on social media

Social media might seem like a quick and easy way to spread the news to your friends. But think carefully about whether there’s anyone close to you who might be upset to find out in this way.

Also, once you’ve put it out there in public, it opens up a platform for people to make contact and ask questions. This may not be something you feel like dealing with.

Friends who ‘get it’

You might find it helpful to meet other young people who’ve experienced cancer. Our partner charities Teens Unite and Alike specialise in helping young people with cancer connect with others who understand, through support groups, fun events and an app.

Information reviewed: May 2023

Next review due 2027

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