Advise Me

How to Share the News That You Have Cancer With Loved Ones

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?”

Ashley Imburgia, PsyD, a psychologist with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, said, “Getting a cancer diagnosis can be a stressful and personal experience. It may take you a while to process and accept this diagnosis. The initial weeks are often overwhelming, and it may take time before you want to share or are ready to talk about it with a family member or friend. There is no prescribed time frame or way to do it.” 

You can figure out how you feel and what you are comfortable sharing and think about whom you want to share your news with. “Some people want to ‘rip the band-aid off’ and tell everyone as quickly as possible. Others might tell their closest loved ones right away and hold off on telling other people,” Dr. Imburgia said.  

First steps in sharing your diagnosis

You might have to wait for additional information when your doctor delivers the news. For example, your doctor may recommend further diagnostic or imaging tests or surgery; at that point, you’ll know more about your treatment options, plan and prognosis. Some people want to inform their loved ones right away, while others want to wait until they have more answers. 

You can decide what feels best for you. In either case, making a list of the important people you would like to inform in person can be helpful. 

Many people prefer to start with their partner and close relatives. Depending on your relationships and how you communicate, you might want to tell each person one-on-one or hold a family meeting to explain the news. You may want to ask your doctor, nurse or therapist to be there to help you.

Sometimes people will already have an idea that something is going on, so you can ask what they have already heard and fill in the information they need. 

“With people you are close to, these conversations are best done in person or on the phone,” Dr. Imburgia said. E-mail and letters may be appropriate when you can’t communicate in person or on the phone. They are also useful when you are letting an employer know or sharing the news with acquaintances and colleagues.

Sharing your diagnosis and having these difficult conversations over and over may feel overwhelming. You can ask that a family member or close friend be the one to contact others who you aren’t as close with, but who you still want to inform. 

If your treatment requires you to take time off work, you may need to tell your boss, supervisor or human resources department so that they can accommodate your needs. It’s up to you how much information you share with the workplace. If you feel comfortable with everyone knowing, you could ask a trusted coworker to help you break the news.

Keep in mind that people may have varied reactions to your news depending on their personality, relationship with you and prior experiences with cancer. “They are humans, and they may react in surprising ways,” Dr. Imburgia said.

Tips for talking to your children about your diagnosis

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. 

“It’s important to show them it’s OK to have conversations about cancer and your diagnosis,” Dr. Imburgia said. You can use these recommendations from MD Anderson Cancer Center to help frame your conversation. 

These tips can also help:

  • Be truthful and use the appropriate language and terms when explaining your cancer diagnosis. 
  • Be concrete in your explanations and avoid overwhelming your children with unnecessary information. Use age-appropriate vocabulary and details. 
  • Explain how cancer is different from other illnesses—children sometimes worry that cancer is contagious. 
  • 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 talk to you or other family members as often as they need.
  • Let them know it’s OK to feel sad, scared and angry 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, and you might experience side effects where you feel sick and tired and not be able to be with them as much as before. Explain any physical changes they may notice in you, such as hair or 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 their immediate family or with a support group.
  • Allow your children to speak freely about cancer. Sometimes 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.

Sharing on social media

You can decide how much of your diagnosis, if any, you want to share on social media sites. Some people find that social sharing makes them feel less alone. Others find it opens more conversations, which can be difficult. 

Dr. Imburgia said some people prefer Caring Bridge, an online platform that allows people to share details of their cancer experience more privately. With it, you can share updates with many people, cutting down on your number of calls and texts. Having people constantly checking in about your plans, lab tests, treatment decisions and clinical trials can produce anxiety.

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 that keeping your diagnosis to yourself will prevent pain and worry for your loved ones or prevent you from having to face it yourself. 

“Some people decide not to tell many people. Saying the words aloud makes the diagnosis real, so some people avoid doing this. We see the full spectrum. Some people tell everyone, and others keep it to themselves. But we do know that support helps,” Dr. Imburgia said. “And most people wish they would have gotten more support early on, whether professionally or from loved ones.”

As you decide, consider the benefits of opening up. 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. Research has shown that people with a solid social and emotional support network adjust better to their diagnosis and report a higher quality of life.

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 you are waiting for your appointments.
  • Watching your kids, bringing over a meal or helping with household chores.
  • Supporting you during particularly difficult times—talking about your diagnosis, treatment, feelings and thoughts can help you process everything.

The bottom line

Sharing the news of a cancer diagnosis can be difficult, and it’s up to you to decide who you tell, what information you offer and when to share. While some people with cancer keep the news to themselves, most find that they gain support from the people in their lives by sharing. If you would like to connect with an expert who can help you through these conversations, reach out to Banner Health.

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