It's Hard to Talk When Holding Your Breath: Talking about Advancing Cancer

Written By Glen Horst

Do you remember what it was like to tell your family and friends about your cancer diagnosis? There’s just no easy way to break news about cancer to family and friends. No matter how you do it, the news is a shock. The clock stops; the world shifts. They hold their breath; you hold yours. They may ask questions; you explain as best you can. You try to understand together. At the time, you may have thought that it was the hardest thing you would ever have to talk about.

Picture of a couple having a conversation
Photo: RobW_ via flickr Creative Commons

Then you discovered it was just the first of a series of conversations that seem to get harder and harder as the cancer advances. There are so many difficult things to talk about:

  • treatment choices
  • side-effects of treatment and of the disease
  • scheduling and getting to appointments
  • results after a course of treatment (especially if they aren’t what you hoped for)
  • information about how the cancer is advancing and further threatening your life
  • options for new or additional treatments
  • new symptoms
  • palliative care
  • ____________ [fill in the blank]

Every time something new comes up, you hold your breath and you sense that the people who care about you are holding theirs too.

Holding your breath and shallow breathing are natural reactions when you are frightened or bewildered. But, it’s hard to talk when you are holding your breath. It’s hard to listen and to comprehend. Talking with those closest to you and with others who can help you understand is likely what you need the most. In fact, talking about what is going on with people who care about you is one of the best ways to catch your breath again and to begin to breathe more deeply.

Talking about advancing cancer can be uncomfortable. You need courage and trust as you try to find words for concerns, feelings and struggles that seem beyond description. You hope that those with whom you share will listen deeply, be respectful and respond with understanding and support. You may have little control over how they react to your situation. Yet, by talking with them about what you are going through you give them a chance to walk with you.

You may be concerned that beginning difficult conversations will stir up feelings that you don’t know how to deal with. The article “Living with Limited Time: Exploring Feelings” at Canadian Virtual Hospice describes some of the feelings that can be overwhelming in advanced cancer and suggests ways of dealing with them. Talking with the children and youth in your life about your cancer may be particularly daunting. “Talking with Children and Youth about Serious Illness” suggests understanding and tender ways of doing this.

Perhaps you’d like to talk with other people who are travelling a similar road. Virtual Hospice’s Discussion Forums is a safe welcoming community where you can talk and share openly with people who are also living with a life-limiting illness.

Sometimes the most difficult questions are best answered with the help of a professional. When you find yourself holding your breath, remember there is always someone to talk to online at Virtual Hospice and in person at Princess Margaret’s Spiritual Care Clinic.

  • Princess Margaret spiritual care professionals will help you express your feelings and concerns in a way that honours your values and beliefs, even if you’re not religious. Spiritual care professionals are available at the Princess Margaret every day from 8:30 am – 11:00 pm. Ask a hospital staff member of volunteer to contact Spiritual Care for you, or call 416-340-4055 to arrange to see someone.
  • Virtual Hospice’s team is committed to sending you a private, personal response within 3 working days through Ask a Professional.

How have you been able to start a difficult conversation and breathe a little easier?