Advise Me

How To Tell A Loved One You Have Cancer

Your doctor has just told you that you have cancer. After the initial shock, you may ask yourself, “How am I going to tell my partner? My friends? My kids?”

“Cancer is very personal and it’s important to consider who you feel most comfortable sharing your diagnosis with,” says Dr. Soffia Palsdottir, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Allow yourself time to figure out how you feel and what you are comfortable sharing.”

First Steps in Sharing Your Diagnosis

If you’ve just received a cancer diagnosis, “It may be helpful to make a list of those you feel it’s important to inform in person,” says Dr. Palsdottir.

Consider sharing your cancer diagnosis first with family, like a partner or other close relatives. You can tell each person one-on-one or hold a family meeting to explain the news.

“It may help to ask your doctor, nurse, or a therapist to be there to help you,” says Dr. Palsdottir.

You shouldn’t feel obligated to bear the burden alone. Make a list of people you associate with less often but still want to inform and “consider having a close friend or family member contact those people,” says Dr. Palsdottir. If your treatment requires you to take time off work, you may need to tell your boss or supervisor or notify your employer’s Human Resources Department, so they can be supportive and accommodate your needs. For your workplace at large, you could ask a trusted coworker to help you break the news, if you feel comfortable with everyone knowing.

Telling Children

You may want to shield your kids from the news, but this can increase their distress and distrust. Children can feel deeply hurt when excluded from important issues in the family. When sitting down with your children to tell them about your cancer, Dr. Palsdottir recommends the following:

  • Be truthful and use the appropriate language and terms when explaining your cancer diagnosis. If you need help understanding your diagnosis, schedule an appointment with a Banner expert and get answers to your questions.
  • Be concrete in your explanations and avoid overwhelming your children with unnecessary information.
  • Reassure them you’re receiving excellent care, and you’ll update them on new information as it becomes available.
  • Keep the line of communication open and encourage your children to come talk to you or other family members as often as they need.
  • Let them know it’s ok to feel scared, angry, sad and that, at times, you have those feelings, too.
  • Explain how cancer might impact their lives: friends and family may be around to help you out, you might feel sick and tired and not be able to be with them as much as before and explain any physical changes they may notice in you, such as hair and weight loss.
  • Inform important people in your child’s life about your diagnosis, such as teachers and coaches. This can open a line of communication for your child. They may benefit from talking to someone outside of the immediate family.
  • Allow your children to speak freely about the cancer. There may be times when they don’t want to talk about it, and that’s OK, too.
  • Let your kids live their lives with as much normalcy as possible and reassure them that they can continue going to their regular activities.

What if I Don’t Want to Share with Anyone?

Cancer is personal. Only you can decide where, when and with whom to share your diagnosis. You may feel keeping your diagnosis to yourself will prevent pain and worry for your loved ones or prevent you from having to face it yourself.

“Sharing your cancer diagnosis with people you feel comfortable and safe with can ease your burden and allow you to feel supported and cared for during a difficult time,” says Dr. Palsdottir.

Research has shown that people who have a strong network of social and emotional support adjust better to their diagnosis and report a higher quality of life, according to Dr. Palsdottir.

Getting Help from Loved Ones

Family and friends may offer to help, especially as you go through treatment. Giving them specifics about how they can help can ease your burden and reduce their feelings of helplessness. Consider asking for help with:

  • Driving you to and from appointments
  • Keeping you company during chemotherapy or when waiting for your appointments
  • Watching your kids, bringing over a meal or helping with house chores
  • Being with you during times that are particularly difficult

Engaging in conversation about your diagnosis, treatment, feelings and thoughts can help you process your diagnosis,” says Dr. Palsdottir.

Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center provides a variety of wellness classes and support programs for patients.

Cancer Caregiving