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You have cancer; how will other people react?

Aug 6, 2020

You are likely to get a wide range of responses as you start telling family, friends and colleagues about your diagnosis. To help manage the impact their reaction might have on you, it’s worth taking time to understand why people might react in certain ways and develop some strategies that you can use to respond to them.

Let’s start with when people get it wrong. Sometimes well-meaning people say insensitive things; which could be because they simply don’t comprehend what they’re saying or it could be because they’re so upset they have no idea what to say, so they’re ‘filling the silence’. For example, they automatically compare you to someone else they know with cancer, they might question your treatment choice or they might go as far as saying “its not all bad” or “I know how you’re feeling”.

In this case, simply changing the subject might be easier than trying to respond. But if you want to be more direct you could say something like “I know you’re just trying to help but what you’ve just said doesn’t actually help me. What will help me is…”

Lack of experience is a common reason people respond in a certain way. Not everyone has had experience of talking to or supporting someone with cancer so they might avoid talking about it all together or come across as overly positive. This is generally because they are struggling with knowing what to say, how to ask what you need or they might be too embarrassed to ask you if they think they should already know.

One way to deal with this is to acknowledge their feelings and say something like “Don’t worry, you don’t need to say anything and honestly, I have no idea what I’m going to need but when I do know, it’d be great if I could ask you.” Another way is to simply talk about everyday things; going back to small talk can put you both at ease and will give you an opportunity to introduce your cancer in another way.

“My cousins sister had a similar cancer, she was seeing this doctor and had this treatment…”. Cancer affects a lot of people and most people know someone who has had cancer so sharing stories, while not helpful, happens a lot. Some people may share stories with you that you find negative or upsetting; it’s okay to tell them you do not want to hear that kind of story right now.

Miracle cures and unhelpful advice on treatments. People will be keen to help you and in their enthusiasm they might suggest treatments or non-evidence based miracle cures they’ve heard of. The only way to deal with this is to explain that you have a really good medical team who are helping you to make the right treatment choices for your cancer.  

Some of these questions and reactions may make you feel hurt, angry or frustrated. You will need to give your family, friends and colleagues time to adjust to your diagnosis. Some may be supportive from day 1, others may take a little longer, but understanding why people react in certain ways can help you maintain meaningful and supportive relationships as you go through your cancer journey.

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