Telling People You Have Cancer, and How to Respond As a Loved One

ABC Life / By Liz Keen

Image: ABC presenter Jill Emberson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2016, and is sharing what it’s like to live with death in sight. (ABC: Anthony Scully)

I was 22 when my mum told me she had breast cancer.

She was driving me to dinner.

“It’s not a big deal,” she said.

“It will be OK.”

It took a minute to sink in. But in that moment, I believed her.

And when we drove past some of my friends walking in the same direction, I asked her if we could give them a lift.

I have always felt guilty about that moment.

I’ve been reflecting on it lately, after spending the past few months working with ABC presenter Jill Emberson on Still Jill, a podcast about her experience of living with terminal ovarian cancer.

Jill’s had to have a raft of these painful conversations, and her cancer is a particularly tough one to talk about. Women with ovarian cancer have a 40 per cent chance of being alive five years after their diagnosis.

“I remember the phone calls I had to make to my family. They’re really hard to remember making,” she says.

“My mother — I could hardly bear having that conversation with her.”

Dealing with denial

Cancer Council NSW is often asked for advice on how to share the news of a diagnosis.

Brenda Clasquin, a support consultant with the organisation, says these conversations are inherently tough. And while we shouldn’t feel guilty if we say the wrong thing, there are things we can do to make it easier.

When Jill was first told she probably had ovarian cancer, she was alone at the doctor’s office.

She called her partner Ken and he drove to meet her.

On hearing the news, Ken went white, but he didn’t say much. Jill remembers misreading this as a sign that he didn’t care as much.

“Rather than me being cool, calm and collected, and accepting that his emotional responses are different to mine, I threw my handbag at him,” Jill says.

“I threw it really hard.”

Jill and Ken have revisited this moment and talked this through, but it took some counselling to move forward.

It’s made them stronger as a couple. In fact, they married in September this year.

Ms Clasquin says the denial family and friends can feel on hearing a diagnosis is real and part of the stages of grief.

When Jill was told the cancer was back and she had a terminal illness, she and Ken were more prepared and knew what they needed from each other.

“I can remember making eye contact [with Jill] and us bursting into tears and just holding one another,” Ken says.

Planning to tell others

Ms Clasquin suggests taking some time to think about how you’ll tell others, once you’ve received a diagnosis.

“A diagnosis like this comes with a huge shock, and people need the opportunity to absorb that shock themselves before they tell everybody else,” she says.

Aside from time, planning can help.

“Write down some pointers of what you want to say, and what you want to avoid saying,” Ms Clasquin says.

And if the thought of having the conversation again and again frightens you, consider asking someone else to break the news.

This can be particularly useful in a work setting.

That person might become a go-to for information, if you choose to go through treatment, to save you from updating concerned family, friends and colleagues.

If you’d prefer to do it yourself, social media can also be a useful way of keeping many people up to date at the same time.

Blogs, Facebook posts or pages, Whatsapp and Instagram can all be spaces to let people know what’s happening and what you need.

Specially designed websites like Gather my Crew can be a place to start a blog to keep friends informed and help them coordinate their activities if you need help with shopping, cleaning, transport and so on.

Telling our children

Jill’s daughter Malia was 19 when her mum was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

She was also in Spain.

“I got a call from Dad. It was very out of the blue and he told me they found cancer, she’s in hospital,” Malia says.

“Dad was very distressed, but I was so far away. It felt very abstract.”

Ms Clasquin says it’s important not to wait too long to tell children news like this, whatever their age.

She adds that even young children are emotionally perceptive and will sense something is wrong, often before they’re told.

“You do need to prepare to tell your children this news, but they shouldn’t be the last to know,” she says.

“Make sure they feel part of the family and not excluded from what is a really big event.”

Ms Clasquin explains it’s important loved ones get the support they need because a cancer diagnosis has a huge impact on a whole family.

“Research has shown carers can experience more distress than the person that has been diagnosed, but they try to hold it together and they believe that’s their role,” she says.

Malia has turned to a counsellor for support because it’s hard to talk to her mum about how the cancer impacts on her.

“It’s been really great to have someone there to be like: ‘She’s going to die, she’s really sick.’ To have someone to freak out about that to and not just keep it inside,” she says.

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