Communication in Cancer Care

Medically Reviewed on 2/3/2023

Woman speaking with her doctor
Effective communication between people with cancer and their caregivers and healthcare providers can improve their well-being.

Effective communication between people with cancer, family caregivers, and medical professionals improves the person’s well-being and quality of life. Open conversation about concerns and options is necessary throughout all phases of cancer therapy and supportive care. Effective communication in cancer care aims to

  • Establish a trustworthy relationship between the person, their family caregivers, and the medical staff
  • Share information
  • Encourage the person and family to discuss their emotions and concerns

How can nurses communicate with people about their cancer diagnosis, course of treatment and outcomes?

Nurses are in a good position to communicate with people with cancer because they spend more time with them during care than most other members of the cancer care team.

The person often feels the closest to the nurse. Even if nurses are not the ones who deliver the news, they help the person work through it by communicating with them. According to the National Cancer Institute, “nurses are frequently the most trusted member of the cancer team when it comes to obtaining information, and they serve as advocates for the patient when important and sensitive questions such as, ‘How bad is it?’ or ‘How long do I have to live?’ arise.”

For hospitalized people, nurses serve as their advocates and translators, especially after personal interactions with medical professionals.

When speaking with people with cancer, nurses may prefer to start with the “five E's” of communication basics:

  1. Engage the patient
  2. Elicit the patient's understanding and concerns
  3. Educate the patient
  4. Address the emotion
  5. Enlist the collaboration of the patient and caregiver

The five Es of fundamental communication assists medical professionals to build relationships with the person, outlining their conditions, educating them on their illnesses and treatments, expressing compassion when dealing with emotions, and including the person’s family in their care plan.

How should parents discuss cancer with their children?

Instead of hiding your condition from your children, be open and honest with them. Choose a calm, peaceful time to discuss your illness with your children. For two-parent families, telling the kids at once might be beneficial. Families with several kids should think about the kids' ages and developmental stages to decide whether it makes more sense to speak with them individually or in a group.

  • Use terminology suitable for your child's age and stage of development. For children younger than eight years, share fewer details, but for older children, share more information.
  • Share the fundamentals of your cancer diagnosis with them, such as the type of cancer you have, where it is in your body, what will happen throughout treatment, and how their lives may alter.
  • Be prepared to respond to any inquiries from kids. Practice your response to a child asking “if you're going to die.”
  • Discuss that getting cancer is not anyone's fault and the disease is not communicable because children often place blame for bad things that happen to their loved ones.
  • Ensure your child they are always going to be taken care of.
  • While fighting cancer, check in with your kids to see how they are handling it.


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How should healthcare providers talk to pediatric patients and their families about cancer?

Nurses and other medical professionals can connect with kids who have terminal illnesses by using the “six E's” communication techniques.

  1. Establish an open communicating agreement with parents, children, and caregivers early in your relationship
  2. Engage the child at reasonable times
  3. Explore what the child already knows and wants to know and provide information accordingly
  4. Explain medical information according to the child's need, age, and developmental level
  5. Empathize with the child’s emotions
  6. Encourage the child and reassure them you are there to listen and support them

How to talk with the healthcare team

Planning for doctor visits is beneficial for people and their caregivers. The following tips might help make the most of these visits:

  • Maintain a file or notebook with the person’s medical data, including the dates of all tests and procedures, test results, and other records. When you go to the doctor, bring this file with you.
  • Keep a record of the names, dosages, and schedules of your medications. Bring this list along.
  • If you are researching the medical problem, only use reliable sources, such as the government and national organizations. When you visit the doctor, bring this study with you to discuss.
  • Make a list of your inquiries and worries. Rank your questions in order of importance.
  • If you have a lot to talk about with the doctor, ask if you can
    • Make a longer appointment
    • Ask questions over the phone or by email
    • Speak to a nurse or another doctor's office staff member
  • Record or make notes to review your conversation.
  • Bring a family member, friend or caregiver with you so that they can assist you to remember essential details following the appointment.
Medically Reviewed on 2/3/2023
Image source: iStock Images

How to Talk About Cancer: A Communication Guide for Cancer Patients, Providers, and Loved Ones.

Communication in Cancer Care (PDQ®)–Patient Version.

How to Communicate as a Caregiver.