Talking to family, friends and partners about advanced cancer

Talking to family and friends about advanced cancer

Telling family and friends that you have advanced cancer can be very difficult. It may mean dealing with their upset or worries as well as your own.

You may feel guilty, feeling that you are causing them to be upset or worried. If you are finding it difficult to talk about your cancer, our booklet Who Can Ever Understand? can help.

Our booklet Lost for Words can be a useful source of support for the family and friends of someone with cancer. Call the Irish Cancer Society Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 for a free printed copy and to get advice from a specialist cancer nurse.

Your family and friends can support you through your cancer journey in different ways.

Some family members and friends can offer a listening ear and give you advice if needed. Some may gather up-to-date information on your advanced cancer to know what you can expect and what you are going through. Others may prefer to help you in a practical way with travelling to and from hospital, with childcare, cooking, shopping or housework.

You may find it hard to accept help, especially if you are an independent person. But helping gives friends and family a way to show they care. Don’t be afraid to tell them exactly what you need help with and what you want to do yourself.

Although it is likely that your family and friends will be supportive, it may not always be the way. Sometimes feelings of anger, depression or disbelief may be a result of their being unsure how they can support you.

In some cases, a kind of awkwardness may come between you and family members and friends, as some people will need time to sort out their feelings.  It may take time to know which way suits you and your family or friends best.  

Read our advice on talking to your family and friends.

Talking to your partner about advanced cancer

If you have a partner they are probably experiencing similar emotions to you. Cancer can bring you closer together or sometimes it can challenge a relationship that previously felt secure.

Talking about your feelings and fears can be very painful and this can make communication difficult at a time when talking openly is important.

How couples cope with concerns and issues varies widely from one relationship to another. If you have problems working through issues it may be helpful to contact a social worker or counsellor. Talk to your GP or specialist nurse about this. You can also call the Irish Cancer Society Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 to talk in confidence about any problems or worries you have.

Sex and closeness

For some people sex is an important part of their relationships, while it is less so for others. Coming to terms with the fact that you have advanced cancer can take quite a while. Your emotions may be turned upside down and you may not feel like having sex when you have many worries on your mind.

You may also be feeling tired or have a lower sex drive from the effects of treatment or from your symptoms. As a result, you may lose interest in sex. Do not worry about this, as it is quite normal.

You may find that talking about your feelings may ease your anxiety. Even if you do not feel like having sex, you can still enjoy a close and loving relationship with your partner.

If you find it hard to express your feelings to your partner or a close friend, talk to your doctor or nurse. They may refer you for specialist counselling if you feel that would be helpful.

You can also speak to a cancer nurse in confidence by calling the Irish Cancer Society Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700. The nurses are used to talking about all aspects of cancer, including things to do with sex, so you don’t need to be embarrassed. You can also email the nurses at

Talking about advanced cancer to children and teenagers

Talking to children and teenagers about cancer is difficult. When you have advanced cancer it can be even harder. Because your natural reaction is to protect your children, you may be tempted to say that everything will be fine. But in the long run, it is best not to give children false hope.  

One question that most parents dread is ‘Are you going to die?’

Here are some suggestions for ways you might want to respond to the question:

  • Sometimes people die from cancer. I’m not expecting this to happen because the doctors told me they have very good treatments these days. My type of cancer usually can be controlled with treatment.
  • There is no way to know right now what’s going to happen. I’ll know more after the first treatments are finished. When I know more, I will tell you.
  • Right now we don’t know the answer to that question. But I’m going to give it my best shot and do everything I can to get well. I will always be honest with you about what is going on.

Even with advanced cancer it is still important to balance hope with reality. By helping children face death together as a family, you are likely to help them adjust and recover from their grief quicker. 

At this time you will want to consider what is important for you, how you want to spend the time and how your children can be involved.

More information about talking to children and teenagers is available in a free booklet from the Irish Cancer Society called Talking to your children about cancer. It has practical advice, with specific tips for talking to different age groups. It also has information on supporting children and teenagers and helping them to deal with their emotions. If you would like a copy or more advice, call the Irish Cancer Society Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre.

Next:  Find out more about care and support for advanced cancer

Date Last Reviewed: 
Friday, January 19, 2018