Other people's reactions to the diagnosis

How people react to the news that someone close to them has cancer depends on many things, including their previous knowledge or experience of cancer and how they are told. Although cancer is less taboo now than it once was, the words ‘cancer’ and ‘leukaemia’ can still be frightening and many people assume, wrongly, that leukaemia will inevitably lead to death. Most people we spoke to said that the announcement of their diagnosis of leukaemia was met with shock and disbelief. Thelma said that her brother asked the consultant if they had made a mistake. Rani’s medical student sister hadn't known the difference between acute and chronic leukaemias at that time and couldn’t understand why Rani had not been admitted for immediate treatment. Mike said that the diagnosis confirmed his wife’s suspicions of what was wrong.

Although learning the diagnosis had been shocking and emotional, most people said their partners had hugged them and promised to support them through the illness. Several men said their wife had been very calm and practical. Some women said that their husband had been very upset and hadn't hidden his feelings as some men might. Jim said that he and his girlfriend had cried together for a long time. Adult children reacted in different ways - some showed their feelings, others appeared to cope quietly. A few people said that their elderly parents didn’t want to discuss it and appeared unsympathetic. Joanna, whose husband had leukaemia, said that her mother-in-law was very upset to think that her son might die before her.

Marilyn found it difficult to tell her family that she had leukaemia because her father had also had it, although it hadn’t caused his death. Coping with other people’s emotions could be difficult and some said that having people crying around them was not helpful. On hearing the news, people often felt awkward and didn’t know what to say and could blurt out inappropriate or unhelpful things, particularly if people looked well and they found it hard to grasp that they could be so ill. Some tried to tell people the news in a positive way and hoped that this would help them know how to behave. Dianne noted that open and clear communication had helped to avoid confusion and upset. After being told the news, some people said their friends were very supportive and contacted them regularly whereas others didn’t know what to say and they didn’t hear from them.

Learning the news often resulted in family and friends coming to visit, sometimes travelling far. Elaine’s father-in-law offered to come from Australia. Susan's son immediately offered to donate his bone marrow for her, even though this wasn't necessary. Some relatives, particularly those with medical qualifications, spoke to the doctors to find out more and offered to accompany the person to hospital appointments.

For many people the initial shock of learning the diagnosis was eased by a reassurance that the leukaemia was treatable, or in the case of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), that treatment might not be needed and life could continue as normal for a long time. Several people said that by explaining this to others they were able to avoid them experiencing the same shock they had felt themselves before they had known the full story. Deciding not to tell certain people about the diagnosis until later when it caused visible side effects sometimes caused problems. Some people who had decided not to tell their children at first found that they were angry about having been kept in the dark (see ‘Telling others about the diagnosis’).

Last reviewed: December 2018.

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