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Our 10 top tips to help you talk about cancer

Sophie Lindsay-Ogg
by Sophie Lindsay-Ogg | Analysis

24 April 2023

1 comment 1 comment

To help us beat cancer, we need to improve cancer awareness, share the importance of spotting cancer early and tackle health inequalities.  

Talking about cancer can help bring us one step closer to our goal. It can save lives and help to break down the barriers people may face to seeking help.  

We know that talking about cancer isn’t easy, but we want to help you. 

To ensure you can make every conversation count, the nurse trainers from our Talk Cancer training programme have shared their top tips to help you talk about cancer and health with your community, friends, family and colleagues. 

1. Ask open questions 

It might sound counterintuitive, but you can talk about cancer without even using the word cancer.  

For example, if someone is worried about a symptom they’re experiencing, you could ask questions like “how long have you had that symptom?” or “what has your doctor said?”. 

By asking open questions that start with ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’, it encourages people to think and reflect on what’s happening and helps them to decide on the next steps for themselves.  

2. Use simple, easy to understand language  

Trying to explain complex health messages and facts may be confusing to some people.  

Using plain language where possible helps to remove barriers when communicating and gives people a better chance of understanding what you’re saying. Try to use familiar words and phrases and speak in short sentences if you can.  

3. Encourage positive action  

Encouraging positive action is a great way to inspire people to make changes to help reduce their risk of cancer.  

Making a positive change like quitting smoking or cutting back on red and processed meat may seem daunting, but encouraging people to take small simple steps may help to make it more achievable. 

4. Actively listen 

Talking about cancer can be a vulnerable experience for someone, so make sure you keep the focus on them and spend time listening to what they have to say.  

Be sure to make eye contact, repeat points back and be supportive. This not only shows that you’ve been listening but will help encourage action on any positive behaviours that were suggested, like making an appointment with a doctor. 

5. Normalise talking about cancer 

If we can normalise talking about cancer like we do other diseases it can help reduce any stigma around being open about it and break down barriers people may have in seeking help.  

By making it part of everyday conversation, you can help people understand more about cancer and feel more comfortable to ask questions. This can help people learn how to reduce their risk of cancer and give them the confidence to seek help if they notice anything that isn’t normal for them. 

6. Signpost to reliable information 

When talking about cancer, you don’t need to have all the answers.  

Instead, you can signpost people to places that can provide trustworthy information and resources.  

You can signpost to reliable websites or get our leaflets for free to share with others. You can also signpost people to local services for help. To find these services head to the NHS website, put in a postcode and services local to that area will appear.  

7. Know how to respond if someone wants to discuss a symptom  

In your conversations about cancer, you may find that people will want to discuss a symptom with you. However, symptoms could mean so many different things and not just cancer. If this happens, encourage them to speak to a doctor if what they’re experiencing isn’t normal for them.  

8. Be aware of your boundaries 

Having a conversation about cancer doesn’t have to mean doing something you don’t feel comfortable with. Starting the conversation is the important thing.  

Remember to stay within your boundaries, whether they be professional or personal. Just by asking a few open questions or signposting to information can help you make every conversation count. 

9. Cancer Chat and nurse helpline 

Our Cancer Chat forum and nurse helpline are great resources for information and support. The Cancer Chat forum is an online community for anyone affected by cancer, where you can connect with others.  

You can also ask our nurses questions about symptoms, diagnosis and treatment through our helpline. Call freephone 08088004040, Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm. 

10. Mental health and cancer  

Whether you are someone with cancer, a carer for someone with cancer, or even know someone with cancer, it is common to struggle with your mental health when dealing with a cancer diagnosis.  

Coming to terms with a very stressful life experience is difficult; it is not always a straightforward path. There is no right or wrong way to feel or be. We’ve got more information about mental health and cancer, but if you are struggling with your mental health or know someone who is, then please do talk to your doctor or a mental health professional to get support. 

Talking Cancer

Those are our 10 top tips on how to talk about cancer. 

Remember, no one is expecting you to be an expert, and you shouldn’t push yourself to have conversations you aren’t comfortable with. But something as simple as listening to someone’s concerns and encouraging them to seek help can be a huge step in breaking down the stigma around cancer. 

If you would like more information to help you talk about cancer, check out our Talk Cancer training programme. The training aims to help you feel confident talking to people about ways to reduce the risk of cancer, spotting cancer early and the national cancer screening programmes. 

Contact the Talk Cancer team to find out how you have the power to have life-saving conversations. 

 Sophie Lindsay-Ogg is a senior health community engagement officer at Cancer Research UK


  • Di Awcott
    21 July 2023

    I had Breast Cancer 5 years ago and had a Mastectomy of my right breast …..which dis-figured Me and I am still grieving for my lost boobs……as I had a biopsy on the left boob and that is mid-shapen too……..but it saved my life…..💖 Thank God for all the Staff involved at the RD&E at Exeter…….


  • Di Awcott
    21 July 2023

    I had Breast Cancer 5 years ago and had a Mastectomy of my right breast …..which dis-figured Me and I am still grieving for my lost boobs……as I had a biopsy on the left boob and that is mid-shapen too……..but it saved my life…..💖 Thank God for all the Staff involved at the RD&E at Exeter…….