Talking to tackle taboos with Macmillan: How to have difficult conversations around death and cancer

We worked closely with Macmillan to put together a series of three guides. Our guides will take you through how to have difficult conversations about cancer and death with loved ones, and why they can be so important to have.

At Farewill, our mission is to change the way the world deals with death. We’re working hard to help people through some of life’s toughest times. A big part of that is helping people have often difficult conversations with their families about death.

Research from our recent Death & Us report, which looked at trends in attitudes to death in 2021, showed that people wanted to speak more openly about death, but still don’t know how. We’re scared of saying the wrong thing, so we sometimes don’t say anything at all. Especially when it comes to talking about something like cancer,.

We worked closely with Sian Robinson, one of Macmillan’s incredible Support Line Service Knowledge Specialists to put together a series of three guides. Sian works on Macmillan’s support line, helping people who are going through cancer or supporting the loved ones who are caring for them . Our guides will help take you through how to have these difficult conversations with loved ones and why they can be so important to have.

  • If you're wondering how to explain either a loved one’s cancer diagnosis to children or your own diagnosis, take a look at this guide

  • If someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer and you’re supporting them through it, our guide here will be the best place to start

  • And if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and you’re looking for tips on how to talk about it with your loved ones, keep reading the guide below

Starting the conversation

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer, starting conversations around end of life planning and death can sometimes be an awkward and upsetting conversation to have. Sometimes when people hear ‘cancer’, they think ‘death sentence’. But this is often not the case - some people can live a long time with a diagnosis and some cancers may be curable. No matter your situation or what your prognosis is, these conversations can still be important to have.

As Sian says, “people feel as though talking about dying may ‘tempt fate’” and for many people, talking about death feels uncomfortable and ‘too morbid’. But once you begin, it’s often much simpler than you first thought.

Some practical advice

Here are some conversation starters Sian has suggested to make opening up the conversation a little less overwhelming:

  • Try discussing your ‘bucket list’

January is around the corner, and New Year’s Resolutions could be a good opportunity to talk about what you want to do in the year ahead. Maybe it’s going somewhere special on holiday, maybe it’s learning to play the guitar (it’s never too late to join a band!). And if you’re coming to this towards the end of the year, you could talk about what you’ve achieved in the year so far, to help open up conversations about the future.

  • Talk about your favourite song

If your favourite song plays on the radio, or your favourite artist has popped up on your yearly Spotify wrap-up, talking about how you want a particular song to play at your funeral can be a way to open up conversations in a way that feels approachable. 

We suggest saying something like: “This is my favourite ever song. I would love to have it played at my funeral. What would yours be?”. Remember! This can be a two way conversation.

  • Talk about your favourite movie, TV show a recent book or news article that shows death in an interesting way

Take prompts from the things around you. Your favourite tv show, an interview you saw, a film or even a news article you’ve read. If you’re a fan of the TV show Bridgerton or of Succession, you may have noticed how often things like wills and inheritance come up. This could be a good opener because it’s relatable and doesn’t feel too serious, whilst still being important.

We suggest something like “I’ve just finished this week’s episode of Succession and it got me thinking about who will take over my things when I’m gone”.

  • Use a checklist or prompt

The Macmillan and Marie Curie websites both have incredibly helpful checklists of things you could do to plan ahead. Marie Curie also sells a set of conversation cards which are designed to get the conversation flowing. They help to share wishes whilst simultaneously learning more about family and friends. 

You can find useful information on the Macmillan website and in the Macmillan booklet ‘Talking about Cancer’. Marie Curie and Hospice UK’s Dying Matters websites are also invaluable sources of information.

Find out how your support means Macmillan can continue to be there for people living with cancer.

What to do if you’re waiting to know more

Sometimes prognoses are difficult to give accurately and the vagueness around them can be tricky to navigate, especially when it comes to opening up conversations with loved ones. A prognosis is the likely course of a medical condition, most often given by a specialist doctor.

In general, Sian recommends having conversations about end of life planning sooner rather than later.

It can be helpful to focus on things that you want in your funeral wishes; what song you want to play, who you want to be there. At Farewill we’ve seen that family disputes, and even higher funeral costs, are more common when conversations around end of life planning, or writing a will, haven't happened.

Conversations and their impact

The impact of having these conversations with family and friends can be mixed. Some people feel relieved, now that their loved one’s wishes are known and that the practical side of end of life planning has been sorted. Others may feel upset and angry that their loved one is thinking about dying, when they should be focusing on living and getting better.

Some people won’t want to have the conversation at all whereas others may start to think and reflect on their own end of life plans. 

Although the impact of these conversations may be different depending on who is having them, at Farewill we’ve seen how important they can be.

Talking early with our loved ones about what we’d like to happen when we or they die, can help with planning a funeral that really honours the wishes of the person who has died. This can often be a big comfort to their family and friends who are grieving.

And having these conversations with a loved one who has cancer can even feel empowering; you’re coming together to protect their last and final wishes. And it can make you feel less alone too. 

Don’t forget, whether you’re the person who has cancer or if you’re supporting someone through it, being kind to yourself is important. Reach out to family, friends and support networks to ask for help. Macmillan’s Support Line is open 8am-8pm, 7 days a week, for you to talk about how you’re feeling to one of their trained advisors.

Contact the Macmillan Support Line

Article reviewed

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At Farewill we're making everything to do with death easier, friendlier and more affordable. We provide probate, wills and funerals with a difference, and so far we've helped over 60,000 families in the UK.

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