When someone is diagnosed with cancer they may experience a range of emotions such as shock, fear, irritability and anger. You, as a carer, may also feel this way. This can affect communication, which is an important part of any relationship.

People who frequently share their feelings may be better able to talk about cancer. If you usually solve problems or make decisions alone, it may sometimes be more difficult to communicate.


It can be challenging to talk about cancer, its diagnosis and treatment. This may be because you:

  • fear saying the wrong thing
  • don’t know what to say and how to respond
  • feel you shouldn’t talk about the cancer
  • don’t want to say something upsetting
  • feel you have to be supportive and strong for the person with cancer, and worry you could break down.

However, many people find talking helps them cope better with the cancer diagnosis. It also helps couples know how one another is feeling and creates a bond between them.

If you are talking to a young person about cancer, the Talking to Kids About Cancer book may be helpful for you.


Listening is an important part of communication, and helps others talk about how they’re feeling.

Ways to be a good listener

  • Sit somewhere private where you will not be interrupted.
  • Relax and show you are there for as long as needed.
  • Signal that you don’t want to be interrupted, e.g. switch off your mobile phone.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Ask if the other person feels like talking.
  • Focus on the person and listen carefully. Try not to think about something else or plan what you will say next.
  • Ask open questions to get the person with cancer talking.
  • Don’t interrupt or change the subject.
  • Allow the person with cancer to be sad or upset. You don’t have to keep them happy and in good spirits all the time.
  • If the person interrupts you, ask them to wait until you’ve finished.
  • Make sure you have understood what they’ve said, e.g. repeat back information or paraphrase.
  • Try not to give advice, but prompt the person to think about their options. If you do give advice, don’t give it too early.
  • Respond to humour.
  • If the person stops talking, give them some time to gather their thoughts rather than filling in the gap.

Conflict and disagreements

During your role as a carer, there may be times when you disagree with the person you are caring for. It’s normal to have disagreements from time to time. Although dealing with conflict is stressful, it can also be a good way to get closer to the person you are caring for and understand their point of view.

  • If you can’t resolve your differences or if the caring situation becomes too stressful, consider taking a break from your caring role or organising another caring arrangement.
  • Talk to the person you are caring for about your concerns. Let them know that you care about them and want to resolve your differences.
  • If you disagree on something important, try to stay calm and talk through the issues involved. Hear each other out and try to make a decision together. Sometimes people disagree because there has been a misunderstanding.
  • Compare your goals and expectations. For example, some people with advanced cancer choose to stop having treatment to cure the cancer. This may be difficult to accept if you want the person to keep having treatment.
  • Choose your battles – it may help to focus your energy on the issues that really matter.
  • Ask your family and friends for help and support.
  • Talk to your GP or medical team. You might be able to get a referral to a counsellor or social worker who can talk to you about what you are going through.
View our editorial policy