Why it’s hard to talk about cancer

Having worked at WCK for nearly two years, this has felt like one of my biggest responsibilities serving in a communications role. How do we talk about cancer in a way that feels "right," help others to talk about it, and break the taboos that can leave families feeling isolated?


Let's explore this together and come up with some ways to meet the challenge!

by Hannah Lind

A photo of a boy with his hand over his mouth

Cancer is scary


No doubt about it. Studies show that we generally fear cancer more than any other serious illness, and that when someone in our world is affected, our own fears can increase. I used to work in a bereavement service, and I’m grateful for the deeply honest conversations with people who shared their fears of talking about death. To them it felt almost as if talking about it would make it happen. I wonder if the same thing happens when we think about cancer. 


As scary as it is for someone like me to think about, I learned from a young adult at WCK how much more heightened it can be for families who spend years in “cancerland,” not only navigating their own journeys but forming deep and close relationships with so many other families going through treatment. When you’re in the eye of the storm, it can truly feel like cancer is everywhere. By providing a listening ear, maybe some of us can help to ease that burden.  


So, here’s takeaway number one: Be reassured – talking about cancer doesn’t make you get cancer. Knowing someone with cancer doesn’t make you get cancer.

We don't have the right words to say


There is no phrasebook that would work for everyone. Research shows that cancer language can be “powerful and divisive.” We can learn about how language impacts people’s cancer experience, and at WCK we work hard to review and update our language guidelines to ensure we empower, authentically represent families’ experiences, and avoid harm. 


But different people will always want to talk about their cancer experiences in different ways. For example, we avoid using terms like “battle” and “fight” because we know many people are uncomfortable with the connotations. However, some families do choose those words because it fits their experience and perspective. We talk about cancer “journeys” but we know that this doesn’t feel right for everyone.


Let’s not let our fears about saying the wrong thing take over and cut off our connection to those we care about. The Canadian Cancer Society has some tips from their online community about what can be helpful to say, but don’t worry if you feel a little clumsy. What matters most is that you care – communicating your love and desire to be there for them can be your focus.


Takeaway two: Don’t worry – it’s normal to not know what to say. Go with the person’s preferences and let them know they can tell you what’s helpful and not helpful.

We don't have the answers

Well, I’ve got some good news for you on this one. You don’t need to have any of the answers, and nobody expects them from you. In fact, if there’s one thing I’ve personally learned, it’s to zip my big old piehole shut when I’m about to dish out advice that hasn’t been asked for! If I find myself about to say “At least…” or “Did you consider…” I’ve learned to go ahead and NOT SAY THAT THING. 


I’ve heard from different family members about advice they’ve been given over the years about supplements, diets, asking whether their sibling stood too close to the microwave… and I can confirm that none of it helped. 


Takeaway three: You do not have the answers, and that is ok.

Michael Scott from The Office tv show saying "Green means go...so I know to go ahead and shut up about it"

Cancer feels too big


Mark Story writes about how cancer presents a larger communication challenge, because it doesn’t fit neatly into sound bites, even more so with childhood cancer. It’s a complex world of confusing medical and scientific language, deeply emotional and nuanced experiences, and the constant intrusion of fear. No-one could ever sum up or encompass the entirety of someone’s lived experience and all the ways that childhood cancer impacts every aspect of their life.


But perhaps that’s not what’s needed. Instead, we can focus on being present, learning from the moments we get a glimpse of, and sharing stories and ideas that help supportive people to understand how they can show up. We can remember that we are just one part of a whole – what a difference a community can make when each person does a little bit. 


Takeaway four: We will never fully know someone else’s cancer experience, but we can learn ways to walk alongside them.

People might not want to talk about it


Apart from the weight of dealing with diagnosis and treatment, people find themselves constantly making decisions about who to tell, how much, when, how often, and how to deal with people’s reactions. Having to repeat the news over and over again can be upsetting in itself. 


Talking or not talking about cancer is a deeply personal choice, and it’s not wrong for someone to choose not to share. Some people, sometimes, know that not having to talk is exactly what they need. Read Kim’s blog where she shares the kind of support from friends and family that meant the world to her, none of which involved “talking it out.” 


On the other hand, maybe you are the one who doesn’t feel able to talk about it. There can be so many reasons for this, and if you can’t be a go-to person for someone to talk to, that’s ok. It’s good to be aware of what we can and can’t be for other people, and there are different ways to show up and show our care. 


Chopping up a supply of fresh veggies is just as valuable as being a listening ear. Providing car rides to appointments, getting siblings to soccer practice, and buying travel-sized toys for hospital stays can all show your care beyond the expression of words. Check out Rachel’s blog for more practical tips on supporting a family navigating childhood cancer or a blood disorder. 


Takeaway five: If they don’t want to talk about it, that’s ok. If you just can’t talk about it, that’s ok too. Support takes many forms.

We can't fix it


This is perhaps the most painful reason that cancer is hard to talk about: Nothing we say can make it better for a family. And it’s what we desperately want to be able to do. But while we don’t have the power to fix the situation, the good news is that letting someone talk with us does help. Research shows that talking can release emotional pain. By providing space for someone to talk about what they’re going through, we can provide them with some relief. 


When working with bereaved families, I lost count of the times a parent would say they felt “lighter” after talking about it, or a teenager would say “I just needed to get it off my chest.” Talking to someone who listens and acknowledges your experience is powerful and eases the burden. 


Takeaway six: Listening doesn’t magically make everything better, but it can provide much-needed relief. 

We won’t always get it right, and that’s ok. Psycho-oncologist Mindy Greenstein writes beautifully about this, reminding us that “sometimes you’ll do a ‘don’t,’ no matter how hard you try. It’s how we’re built. I’ve said some doozies myself. Try to be yourself. You’re our friend because we like each other, not because you can magically fix our problems. You help us just by being you.”

An important note


While we’re here talking about cancer, we want to remember that many families supported by WCK navigate blood disorders, neurofibromatosis, and other serious illnesses that are not classified as cancer. Their experiences are equally important and often affected by a lack of public awareness. As we work to remove the stigmas associated with cancer, we also work to make sure support grows for all families in our community.

Find out more about who we support