Telling other people you have a serious illness

Telling other peopleYou may be worried about how your friends or family will react – will they withdraw from you? Will they blame you? Or you may be worried that talking about your illness might make things worse.

Many people feel guilty and think that they have brought the illness on themselves in some way. However, this is not true.

Although some of your friends and family will find it difficult to talk about your illness, the best way to overcome their fears is by talking. This is not always easy. One of the most difficult things about being ill is the need to tell friends and family about the illness. Most people who are ill feel that they don’t know where to start.

It is usually possible to have your partner or a close friend with you when you see your doctor, so that you both know what is going on.

The following tips can help you to talk about difficult issues:

  • Try to get the setting right – make sure the television is turned off, the door is closed, you are both sitting comfortably and you can both see each other’s face easily.
  • It’s always worth introducing the subject gradually, rather than just saying you are ill straightaway. You could say something like: ‘This is going to be difficult, but I need to tell you something.’ If your situation is worrying but sounds as though it will be all right in the long term you can say that. For example: ‘I have had some bad news, but there is a good chance that everything will be OK after I have had treatment.’
  • There is no easy way to tell other people that you are seriously ill. You can only tell them in the way that feels best for you. Sometimes it is easier to give the news over the telephone or by letter, rather than being face to face.
  • Ask what they already know. If you think your relative or friend knows some of what has been happening, then it can be quite useful to ask about that, before you repeat what they already know: ‘You probably know some of this already, so if you tell me what you know then I can add to it.’
  • Give the information in small chunks, a few sentences at a time. Ask your relative or friend if they understand what you are saying before you carry on. You can say things like: ‘Does that make sense?’ or ‘Is that clear?’
  • There will often be silences – don’t be put off by them. You or your relative or friend may sometimes find that you don’t know what to say. Just holding hands or sitting together in the same room can say more than any words. If you find that a silence makes you feel uncomfortable, the easiest way to break it is with simple questions such as ‘What are you thinking about?’
  • Say what you need to say. When you tell someone close to you that you have a serious illness, they may feel very upset and depressed. Because of that you may feel that you have to put on a positive and cheerful face to make them feel better. This is fine if your situation looks OK. But if you are really worried about the future, you don’t need to hide that from your relative or friend, to protect their feelings.
  • Try to stay as close to the real situation as you can – it may be painful for your relative or friend at that moment, but if you are too positive, they may be much more hurt to find out the seriousness of the situation later on.

These tips can make a difficult conversation a bit easier. It may not feel fair that you should have to do so much, especially when you probably need support yourself. But talking about your situation can help your friends to support you in the future.

Condition-specific information

Further information on conditions that may be affecting you or those around you:

Support Groups

Visit the NHS inform Support Services Directory to search for local organisations that may help with the issues you are facing:

Last updated: 29 March 2012

This content was supplied by Macmillan Cancer Support.