Coping With Emotions

Cancer Talk Tactics When Friends Are Afraid to Ask About Your Diagnosis

Conversations can become awkward when cancer is brought up, but a joke or simply acknowledging the awkwardness can help bring the cancer talk around.

After a cancer diagnosis, it’s not uncommon to encounter a number of awkward conversations with old and new friends. This may be surprising because these were people with whom conversation usually flowed easily in the past, but now they don’t seem to know what to say.

The awkwardness could be attributed to either you or your friends; you might not want to be that person who brings cancer talk into every conversation, and often, your friends don’t know what to say or how to bring it up. The topic of cancer tends to hang in the air between you while you both pretended it doesn’t exist.

You might not know whether the old friend or acquaintance with whom you’re speaking is aware of your cancer. Sometimes, the person you’re speaking with might be trying to respect your privacy by not asking about a health issue in public, especially when you haven’t indicated yet that cancer is a safe topic. Here’s how to tackle these scenarios.

Give Them an Opening

That mode of conversation doesn’t always work well, so you might need to make a slight reference to the situation in your greeting. Give the other person an opening to ask questions if he or she wants to engage but not necessarily dominate the conversation with cancer talk.

Your greeting might follow an “How are you?” with a response such as, “The surgery went well, and I’m feeling good,” or “I finish up radiation next week, and then I’ll be done with treatment.”

Referencing the diagnosis in a straightforward manner is also a good way to cut through tension. “I don’t know if you heard, but I have breast cancer and I’m starting chemo next week.” There are many different ways to tell someone you have cancer, so what works will depend on you and the person with whom you’re speaking.

Make a Joke

If you’re going through chemotherapy and have lost your hair, a joke about your changed appearance can be an icebreaker. Making a bald joke can relieve tension and make the cancer obvious, so the topic is easier to address head on.

Sometimes, people are afraid to mention the cancer because they think it might remind you that you have it — not that you could ever forget that detail! You might get tired of talking about cancer all the time, or you might avoid the topic out of concern that other people are made uncomfortable by it. In that case, change the topic.

Turn Focus on Them

How much of your cancer story you decide to share in a conversation is up to you. It’s your story, and you don’t owe it to anyone. It’s perfectly OK for you to put boundaries around what you’re willing to talk about and with whom. You can simply tell other people you’d rather not discuss cancer right now.

Most people enjoy talking about themselves and appreciate talking to someone who’s truly interested in their lives. If you’re feeling awkward about discussing your own diagnosis, turn the conversation back to them and ask questions about their lives and well-being. If they have kids or a pet, that’s a great place to start.

Sometimes nothing will salvage an awkward conversation. That’s your cue to say, “It was great to see you. Have a nice day,” and get on with your own day. Maybe next time the conversation will go a little better.

UVA Cancer Center offers counseling resources for both you and loved ones to help talk through your cancer experiences and feelings.

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Judy Schwartz Haley
Judy Schwartz Haley