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How do I talk to people about having cancer?

When you're diagnosed with cancer, it can be difficult to tell others about your health. You may not know how to bring up the topic, or you may be worried about how those closest to you will react. Here are some tips to help you talk about your diagnosis with some of the key people in your life.

Your family may not know how to react

Cancer often affects family roles and routines. Your family may need to help you with or even take over things you once handled alone. You and your loved ones should talk about what changes need to be made to your family routines. This way, you can make decisions as a team and work together. Working as a team helps to make everyone more comfortable with the changes that are part of your family life.

You might find that you are not able to do all the things that you did before your cancer diagnosis. This may make you afraid that you'll become a burden to your loved ones. Your cancer team at Gundersen can help you understand what activities are still appropriate and what ones you should step away from for the time being. As much as possible, you and your family should keep doing the things you used to do together—like playing games or exercising. These are healthy and fun ways to keep working as a team.

'Protecting' versus sharing

Cancer affects the whole family, not just the person who has it. People in your family may sometimes try to "protect" you or other family members from upsetting news or events. But you can't protect someone all the time, and it uses up energy that could be used in better ways.

Some families try to protect the person with cancer from ever getting upset. This can cause tension and confusion as people try to act like everything is OK when it's not. If you think your family is doing this, you might gently let them know you'd rather hear from them about any stresses in the family than try to make sense of all the conflicting messages you're getting. This might also free up more of their energy to take good care of themselves.

When you let your family members know how you feel, both emotionally and physically, they'll be able to better understand what you're going through, give you support and help you make informed decisions.

Dealing with unexpected feelings

You may find that you're taking out your anger and frustrations on the people you care about most. And even in the most loving families, members sometimes feel resentment or anger when one person is sick and can't do their part for a while. This is more often true when the changes last for a long time.

Though this kind of anger can confuse and upset family members, it's a common response to a major life change. The best thing you can do for each other is be honest about what you're feeling. Fears about the future and feelings of guilt, frustration and confusion are often less upsetting when you share them with others in a calm, honest manner. Doing so can also help free all of you from the burden of unspoken fears and concerns.

Sometimes you and your loved ones will feel out of step with each other. For instance, you may feel quite hopeful while your spouse is feeling scared. Remember that people react differently to stressful situations. Some family members may become more absorbed in work or spend more time away from home. Others may stay home but remove themselves emotionally by spending time watching TV, reading or playing video games. Still others may become overly involved in your treatment or personal life. Though it may be hard to do, talking about differences in your coping styles will help you respect and understand each other and, in the end, work together.

You or your family members may find it helpful to participate in a support group like those at Gundersen, either together or separately. Many people find it beneficial to share their experiences with others who are in similar situations, and a support group offers the opportunity to do so in a safe and confidential setting.

Talking with children about cancer

If there are young children in your family, you may be worried about how they'll respond to cancer. How a child reacts to upsetting news often depends on how the adults are handling it. Many times adults have their own strong, private feelings about a cancer diagnosis, and they want to protect the children from their fears and worries. Family members should decide ahead of time how best to talk to their children about cancer.

Keep in mind that if children aren't given honest answers, what they imagine may be worse and even more upsetting. Both adults and children can learn to cope with cancer and its treatments. When talking to children about cancer, you should give them truthful information that they can understand. It's best to share small amounts of information over time and keep the answers suitable to their age and level of understanding. Be sure to give children a chance to ask questions and have their questions answered.

If you'd like expert help, child life specialists are available at Gundersen to help children cope with a cancer diagnosis, whether it be their own or a family member's. A social worker or school counselor also can talk with your child. They may know of other support groups for children in your area. They also can be a source of support that's outside of the family.

Romantic relationships

If you're single, you may be unsure how and when to share the news that you have cancer with a romantic partner. Trust yourself to be the judge of the best time to bring it up. You may find it helps to practice what you will say with a friend before talking with your partner. Do try to give your partner a chance to deal with it—don't assume they'll back away from your relationship because of the cancer. Whatever the reaction, you're not at fault for sharing the news at a "bad time."

Your friends and adult relatives

It's up to you to decide if and when you want to discuss your cancer diagnosis with friends and adult relatives. You may find that in the beginning you only want to tell your spouse or partner and a few close friends or family members. Over time you may want to share with a circle of friends and loved ones. Overall, it's usually best to be honest. Keeping cancer a secret can lead to more stress at a time when you need the support of others. Remember, too, that your friends will most likely learn about your cancer at some point. If and when they do, they may feel hurt if you haven't told them. This can sometimes make it harder for them to be supportive in the future.

Before you talk to others about your illness, think through your own feelings, your reasons for telling them, and what you expect of them. People react differently to upsetting news. Many times people don't know what to say, so they feel awkward and uncomfortable. They also may feel sad or be afraid they'll upset you. They may pull away from you but not explain that it's because they feel sad. Some may become overly polite and careful, and others might ask a lot of personal questions.

Sometimes people don't mean to, but they react in hurtful ways because of their own fear or lack of information. For example, someone may say, "I know just how you feel," when they've never had cancer. You might feel upset to hear that, because you know it's not true. Or, someone may tell you a sad and discouraging story of another person with cancer who died. That's the last thing you want or need to hear! Sometimes people are just talking because they feel the need to respond, even though they don't know what to say. You can help them by telling them what you're OK talking about and what you're not. You could also tell them that you only need them to listen to you, and that you don't need them to say anything other than that they care and are there for you.

Most likely your friends' hearts are in the right places. They probably want to help you any way they can, but they aren't sure how to be helpful. Be ready to tell them how they might help. You might ask them to do things like drive you to and from the clinic, do your grocery shopping, mow the grass, take your children to school or activities or watch your pets for you.

Once people have had time to adjust to the news, try to help them understand what's happening with you. Explain what kind of cancer you have and the treatments you'll need. Give them a clear and honest picture of what your life is like right now. Try to answer their questions. Be direct, and express your needs and feelings openly. It's usually more stressful to hide emotions than to express them. Sharing can help you and those close to you.

For more resources and support for coping with cancer, visit Gundersen's comprehensive COMPASS program.

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