Having the cancer conversation

May 6, 2024 Swedish Cancer Team


In this article: 

  • Going public with your cancer diagnosis is often a challenge – whether you’re Catherine, the Princess of Wales, informing the world or a private citizen telling family and friends. 

  • When discussing your diagnosis, adjust your message according to your audience, using words and phrases they’ll understand.  

  • There is no perfect way to tell someone you have cancer, but there are ways to make it easier. A licensed oncology social worker at Swedish offers tips to get the conversation started. 

Catherine, the Princess of Wales, may have been sitting alone on a bench when she disclosed her cancer diagnosis to the public. But she likely had a team of unseen professionals behind her, including scriptwriters, stylists, PR specialists and communication experts focused on getting the message just right. And, if so, it's not surprising, given the sensitive nature of sharing such personal news with a worldwide audience.  

Telling others you have cancer is a daunting task for anyone. Even when you’re a princess. But there are ways to make it easier. We talked to Sylvia Farias, OSW, LICSW, a licensed oncology social worker at Swedish Cancer Institute. She answers common questions and offers tips for handling a conversation about a cancer diagnosis – even when the topic is difficult to discuss. 

Getting started 

Once you’ve gotten a cancer diagnosis, it’s up to you to decide when to share the news with others. Many patients prefer to wait until they’ve had a chance to absorb and process the news, but there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Your timetable is your own. 

“Tell people you are closest to first and tell them that it is not their news to share with others,” Farias advises. “Begin the conversation by saying what type of cancer you have and give a brief update on your situation. Remember, you control what you tell people and what you keep private. Go with your comfort level and listen to what your ‘gut’ is telling you. That is usually the best way to go.”  

Farias suggests using simple, easy-to-understand sentences, such as:  

  • I’ve met with the oncologist and this is the care plan.  
  • I will be meeting with the oncologist to discuss the next steps. 
  • I am starting treatment on such-and-such date.   

Once you’ve told others, don’t be surprised if they ask for information you don’t yet have.  

“I tell patients to be aware that once they tell loved ones that they have cancer, their loved ones will ask many questions. Questions they don’t have answers for yet. It can get overwhelming,” she says. “It’s okay to say you’d rather not answer any questions until you have more information.” 

If you feel overwhelmed or do not want to discuss it further, she suggests using phrases like: 

  • This is the information I have. I will update you as I’m able. 
  • Please understand this is a difficult time for me, and I’d rather not be asked too many questions.  
  • I will share important information and updates as they happen.  
  • I am not looking for advice or information from loved ones right now. 

“You don’t owe anyone more information than what you want to share. You don’t owe anyone the whole story,” Farias affirms.  

Is it ever okay to keep your diagnosis private and not tell anyone? 

“Absolutely,” says Farias. “But I ask my patients to keep in mind that keeping secrets takes a great deal of energy. And if they ask their spouse, kids, partner – whoever – to keep the information to themselves, it usually causes their loved ones to feel burdened by what they know.” 

Adapt the message for your audience 

Regardless of the best intentions, there is no “perfect” way to tell someone you have cancer. Consider your audience when deciding what to say and tailor your message accordingly. 

This guide from the National Institutes of Health offers helpful tips about talking to children and teenagers, including: 

  • Be honest. Tell them you’re sick and the doctors are working to help you feel better. 
  • Be reassuring. Let them know nothing they said or did caused the cancer. Be sure they understand your illness isn’t contagious. 
  • Be ready for a wide range of emotions. Tell your child it’s normal to be afraid, upset or angry and encourage them to talk about their feelings. 
  • Be clear. Use words and phrases that are easy to understand. 
  • Be patient. Let your child know it’s all right to ask questions, and you’ll answer them as honestly as possible. 

“Tell them that they can ask ANY questions,” says Farias. “If you have an older child, tell them their routine will be disrupted as little as possible and you want them to continue living their life – going to school, parties, football games, etc.” 

Accepting help 

“How can I help?” is a common query when you tell someone you have cancer. And although the asker has the best intentions, the question can get overwhelming when you hear it repeatedly, according to Farias.  

“I suggest sending an email with a list of things that need to be done – mow my lawn, take out my garbage, drive the kids to school, etc. This will weed out the folks who are not really available to help and prevent people from asking if they can do anything,” she says. 

Learn more and find a practitioner 

If you have questions about cancer diagnosis, treatment or care, the experts at Swedish Cancer Institute can help. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.   

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Contact Swedish Primary Care to schedule an appointment with a primary care provider. You can also connect virtually with your provider to review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. And with Swedish ExpressCare Virtual you can receive treatment in minutes for common conditions such as colds, flu, urinary tract infections and more. You can use our provider directory to find a specialist or primary care physician near you. 

Information for patients and visitors 

Related resources 

Unlocking the mysteries of cancer 

Swedish Cancer Institute earns distinguished radiation oncology designation 

Swedish cancer specialists achieve cellular therapy milestone 

National Institutes of Health: Talking to Family and Friends About Your Advanced Cancer 

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Providence Swedish experts in the media 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions. 

About the Author

The Swedish Cancer Team is committed to bringing you the most up-to-date insights about treatments, prevention, care and support available. We know cancer diagnoses strain you both mentally and physically, and we hope to provide a small piece of hope to you or your loved ones who are fighting the cancer battle with useful and clinically-backed advice.

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