Hearing your diagnosis of cancer

Young people are usually told about their diagnosis (what their illness is) by their hospital consultant. What the doctor says is based on the results of  various tests and investigations. These will depend on the type of cancer and might include blood tests, scans, or laboratory analysis of material removed during a biopsy or operation (see ’Tests’). 
The legal age for consent for medical treatment is 16 so parents of teenagers under 16 year olds may sometimes be told of the diagnosis first so that they can be the first ones to tell their children. Parents of younger children sometimes tried to shield them from finding out that they had cancer. A 14 year old boy said he knew that his parents had not wanted to tell him but that they had also felt that they could not keep the diagnosis a secret when he was on the ward.

A 19 year old, who had major surgery before she was told she had ovarian cancer, described how her parents and her consultant decided to break the news in stages.

Stephen had experienced six months of symptoms and many visits to his GP and A&E before being diagnosed.

A 21 year old man received his diagnosis on his own - partly because no one in his family knew that he was having tests for suspected leukaemia. 

Most of the young people we talked to didn’t know much about cancer when they were first told about having it. They were often overwhelmed and had difficulty understanding what was going on. Young people maybe too ill or confused to understand what was happening to them - especially if they had a brain tumour. 

Confusion about what their diagnosis actually was, was sometimes worse if the doctor (and parents) seemed unwilling to use the word ’cancer’ or if it not clear what the medical term means. For example a young woman who was told she had ’osteosarcoma’ would have understood her diagnosis better if she had been told it was cancer.

People whose cancer is not picked up quickly sometimes feel angry, particularly if they believe that the delay had led to more drastic treatment. However, cancer is rare and it can be hard for non-specialist doctors to diagnose early (see ’Going to your GP’).

People whose cancer is suspected or diagnosed quickly said they felt 'numb' but thought it might be a good thing not to have a lot of time to really worry about it.

Common reactions to the diagnosis of cancer are shock, sadness, guilt, confusion, anxiety or feeling ’gutted’. However, some said that they did not react at all, that they had ’no emotions’. Many asked questions like ’Why me?’, ’What have I done to deserve this?’, ’Is it my fault?’ Some become instantly very afraid of dying when they hear they have cancer. 

Some of the young people we interviewed said that they were able to feel something positive because they were told that their cancer was treatable. A boy who had been told that he might have Tuberculosis (TB) even said that he was almost relieved to be diagnosed with a cancer called Hodgkin lymphoma because the infectious nature of TB might have been difficult to deal with at school and in the community. 

Last reviewed December 2017.

Last updated November 2014.


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