Youth Cancer

Telling People you have Cancer

Talking about cancer with your closest friends and family can be challenging enough, but what do you do about telling people in your wider social circle, like work colleagues or uni friends?

  • This can be a really difficult area to navigate in your cancer journey – the 'will I, won’t I' of who to tell and what should be told.
  • In whatever setting you find yourself in, whether it be a professional or university or TAFE setting, the decision will have to be made.
  • There are reasons to tell and not to tell that wider social circle and these are individual to everyone, but here are some below:

Reasons to tell your wider social circle

  • Uni/ TAFE friends and work colleagues can help.
  • Your work/study practices may have to change after your treatment, as you may be tired, or have different concentration levels.
  • Your friends and colleagues may support you in this.
  • You need time off work and uni to attend treatment.
  • You will be undergoing physical change (hair loss) from treatment and it may be impossible not to tell them.
  • It will demystify the topic of cancer and encourage people to learn more about certain illnesses.
  • You have done nothing wrong and this is something that has to be dealt with.
  • If you have a job with a lot of responsibility, it may be a responsibility of yours to inform your team, as they may be relying on you in your work.
  • Your work may be affected through cognitive changes resulting from treatment (a.k.a chemo brain).

Reasons for not telling your wider social circle

  • The possibility that people may react poorly to you telling them, and how that may negatively affect you.
  • Feeling embarrassed talking about it, as it may relate to private parts of your body.
  • You may not want to tell people about your cancer journey, you’ve done enough talking!
  • You may want your cancer experience to remain personal and private.
  • You may feel your life is now being dominated by a disease that you didn’t ask to have. Maybe work or uni is one of the only places where you can still be you without cancer in the mix.
  • People may pity you more and treat you differently because of it, when all you want is to be treated the same as everyone else.
  • People may want to share their own cancer stories with you and you might become a sounding board for everybody's cancer story, some of which end in the death of a loved one. You’re not a counsellor.

If you decide not to tell people in your wider social circle, then that is fine, as it is your decision. If you have decided to tell people then there are a number of things to consider.

Who do you have to tell?

  • Work – You may have to tell your immediate superior at work, or your human resource manager or both. If your treatment involves you taking time off, then there is a chance that this can be accommodated. Taking time off might even be necessary in terms of your contractual obligations at work.
  • Uni/TAFE – There is normally a Student advisory services centre that deals with student issues and they may have a plan of action ready for you. You may need to reduce your workload as a result of treatment and might want the option of deferring exams if that is needed down the line.

How do you tell them?

Prepare yourself for telling others about your cancer journey. There are different ways this can be done.

  • Attend a support group, and ask others in the group how they handled the same dilemma.
  • Write down the way you would like to tell someone about it. Read it back to yourself, then read it out loud, and then to a friend or family member whose opinion you trust. This acts as training for you to actually speak the words you want to say.
  • Visualise yourself telling a friend or colleague your story. In your mind put it in a work or a uni setting. Visualise yourself answering the questions that the friend responds with. Remember you cannot prepare fully for the questions that people may ask you, but there are different areas that you can feel comfortable with, so make an attempt to focus on them.


If someone is inappropriate with their behaviour after you have told them your story:

  • Even though it will be hard at the time be patient with them, as they probably cannot handle the subject matter. It may be too serious and close to the bone for them.
  • If someone walks away after you have told them about your cancer experience, it may be painful to see but remember that they may have their own cancer experience and that it may be a shock for them to hear it in a work or uni setting.

Why is it necessary to tell them?

“Necessary” is a strange word, but it is particularly relevant in this situation. You may have to tell either colleagues or uni/TAFE friends about your cancer journey, as your work or study may be compromised by cognitive changes that can develop during treatment.