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Talking to People About Cancer and Treatment

108091525_8Talking to the people in your life about your head and neck cancer might be challenging for you. These conversations will vary depending on your diagnosis, your cultural background, your relationship with the person or people you’re talking to and their individual reactions. There are many different ways to handle each situation. It’s important to find the approach that works for you.

Deciding whom to tell

Some cancer patients are quick to reach out to others. They are very open about their diagnosis, treatment, experiences and emotions. Others are naturally more private. They may hesitate to tell everyone in their lives about something they consider to be too personal and difficult to share. If you fear being judged or pitied or are in denial about your diagnosis, you will be less likely to reach out to other people. There is some evidence that denial can actually lower a patient’s anxiety level and improve quality of life, but too much denial is dangerous because it can cause patients to delay or refuse needed treatments.1Vos MS, Putter H, van Houwelingen HC, de Haes HC. Denial and social and emotional outcomes in lung cancer patients: the protective effect of denial. Lung Cancer. 2011 Apr;72(1):119-124. Epub 2010 Aug 11.

If you fear being judged for your cancer, you may be relieved to know that social stigma against those with head and neck cancer is far lower than most people believe. Eighty percent of head and neck cancer patients feel social acceptance and support. Only about 20 percent of people with head and neck cancer report experiencing judgment or rejection because of their cancer. Many of these patients say others’ undesirable reactions are mostly in response to facial disfigurement from surgical treatments.2 Lebel S, Castonguay M, Mackness G, Irish J, Bezjak A, Devins GM. The psychosocial impact of stigma in people with head and neck or lung cancer. Psycho-Oncology. 2011 Sep 19.

You’ll have to tell some people, of course, such as your partner and perhaps your employer. Whom else you talk to and when you do it, though, is a decision you’ll need to make over and over again with coworkers, extended family, friends, acquaintances, fellow cancer patients and even curious strangers. In deciding whom to tell and how closely you want to include them in your cancer journey, it’s important to note that cancer patients who have larger social networks of people who know about their cancer have a better recovery rate than those who don’t.3 Kroenke CH,Quesenberry C,Kwan ML, et al. Social networks, social support, and burden in relationships, and mortality after breast cancerdiagnosis in the Life After BreastCancerEpidemiology (LACE) Study. BreastCancerRes Treat.2012 Nov 10. This extends to the behavioral changes that might help prevent cancer recurrence, such as stopping smoking. For example, in one study, 73 percent of cancer survivors who were smokers at the time of diagnosis were able to stop smoking, and they believed their strong support networks helped them to quit. The 27 percent who did not stop smoking reported having low social support.4 Yang HK, Shin DW, Park JH, Kim SY, Eom CS, Kam S, Choi JH, Cho BL, Seo HG. The Association Between Perceived Social Support and Continued Smoking in Cancer Survivors. Jpn J Clin Oncol. 2012 Nov 19. So even if you are more comfortable keeping your health concerns private, it may be in your best emotional interest to tell people about your cancer. It is certainly something to consider carefully.

When you do discuss your cancer with others, share what you’re comfortable sharing. Don’t be afraid to tell people (even close family members and friends) when you need time and space to deal with your situation on your own.

Handling other people’s reactions

When you speak to others about your cancer, know that most people will react sympathetically but they often won’t know what to say. It’s important not to take this personally. Accept their reactions with as much understanding as you can. Know that some people may withdraw from you because they don’t know how to handle their own emotions or because they have misconceptions about cancer. Some may say offensive things out of ignorance or fear. Some may be overly curious and want to know every detail, every step of the way. Some may upset you by showing pity or acting as if you will die at any moment. Some will want to do anything and everything they can to help. Many will certainly uplift you with their strength, good cheer and unwavering supportiveness. In general, open and honest communication with people who care about you is the best path forward.

Most people will have nothing but good wishes for you. They will probably be happy to support you in whatever way they can—emotionally, physically and even financially. They may need a little coaching about how they can best help and support you, and that’s okay.<

Explaining it to my family was pretty straightforward. We told them as it was and how we planned to proceed. We didn’t feel we needed anything else. Barry J. (tongue cancer survivor)

How to talk to people about your cancer

There are some insights that may help you talk to people about your cancer:

Talking to Your Spouse

Maintaining strong communication with your spouse, who may be your primary caregiver, is essential. Get tips for how to keep the lines of communication with your spouse open.

Talking to Your Friends and Adult Family Members

Cancer can change your relationships with your friends and family. You often can better manage these changes with open communication.

Talking to Your Employer

It can be difficult to tell your employer about your cancer. You may fear losing your job, being a drawback to your company or being treated differently by your boss. Knowing more about your treatment can help your employer assist you if you work during cancer treatment. Get tips here on how to talk to your employer.

Talking to Coworkers

Coworkers can be very supportive if you choose to work during cancer treatment. There are ways to help them help you. Learn how to talk to your coworker in this section.


References

1 Vos MS, Putter H, van Houwelingen HC, de Haes HC. Denial and social and emotional outcomes in lung cancer patients: the protective effect of denial. Lung Cancer. 2011 Apr;72(1):119-124. Epub 2010 Aug 11.

2 Lebel S, Castonguay M, Mackness G, Irish J, Bezjak A, Devins GM. The psychosocial impact of stigma in people with head and neck or lung cancer. Psycho-Oncology. 2011 Sep 19.

3 Kroenke CH,Quesenberry C,Kwan ML, et al. Social networks, social support, and burden in relationships, and mortality after breast cancerdiagnosis in the Life After BreastCancerEpidemiology (LACE) Study. BreastCancerRes Treat.2012 Nov 10.

4 Yang HK, Shin DW, Park JH, Kim SY, Eom CS, Kam S, Choi JH, Cho BL, Seo HG. The Association Between Perceived Social Support and Continued Smoking in Cancer Survivors. Jpn J Clin Oncol. 2012 Nov 19.