Telling Friends and Family That You've Been Diagnosed With Cancer

What to Say to Your Spouse, Kids, and Employer

Sharing bad news about cancer with a loved one
How can you talk to your family, friends, and employer about your cancer diagnosis?. Getty Images/Roberto Westbrook/Image Source

Telling friends and family that you have been diagnosed with cancer is not an easy task. Not only do you have to deal with the new emotions that you are feeling, but you also have to cope with the reaction of the person you are telling. This can result in added stress, which can increase your own fears and anxiety about cancer. This guide can help ease you through the process. 

Do You Have to Tell Everyone That You Have Cancer?

Many people feel the need to announce their diagnosis to everyone around them when they are first diagnosed with cancer.

Feeling as if everyone should know is normal; however, it's not always best. You may find that it is better to tell only those who will be part of a positive support system, such as immediate family members and very close friends. Some people find themselves feeling guilty for not sharing their diagnosis with certain friends. Don't. Your only job right now is to focus on getting healthy, and that may mean not sharing your diagnosis with anyone in your life who seems to drain your energy level.

Preparing for the Talk

Before you tell your loved ones, take note of a few things. People will respond differently, depending on their personality, as well as any prior experience that they've had with cancer. Most people who are diagnosed with cancer are somewhat shocked to find that friends they thought would be with them through thick and thin seem to disappear, whereas friends they don't know as well seem to come out of the woodwork to be a tremendous source of support.

Prepare yourself (as much as you can) for the fact that some people won't respond in the way that you would have hoped.

Keep in mind that you don't necessarily have to be the one to share your diagnosis. Many people find it easier to appoint a "spokesperson" to share the news, at least for sharing the news with people who are outside their innermost circle.

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Finding the Right Words

How in the world can you begin sharing your diagnosis? The biggest challenge is saying the words "I have cancer." Saying those words aloud can release emotions that you may have been suppressing. Telling another person somehow makes the disease more real; it is validating. Although it may be difficult to find the right words, it is very therapeutic, because you are admitting that you are sick. Admittance is the first step in coping with cancer.

When many people first hear the word “cancer," they automatically think the worst. It is your responsibility to educate them on the extent of the disease. The more at ease and knowledgeable they are, the more effectively they can support you. Being surrounded by people whose anxieties and fears are obvious and excessive will not allow you to cope in a healthful manner. Remember, how you are coping is most important—not how they are dealing with your disease.

Telling Your Spouse or Partner That You Have Cancer

Your spouse or partner will likely be the first person you confide in about your cancer diagnosis. He or she will likely be your caregiver during treatments and can be the best support system that you have. It is important to be completely honest about your cancer and prognosis.

Allowing your partner to accompany you to appointments will make you feel less isolated on your journey. When you have a partner who gives you ultimate support, combating cancer begins to feel like teamwork, and you will feel empowered.

Telling Younger Children That You Have Cancer

It is never easy to tell children bad news. Parents have a natural instinct to protect their children's feelings, so sometimes parents choose to omit certain information. Many psychologists agree that—though the intention is good—this hurts kids more in the long run. In short, being straightforward and honest is best.

It's important to let your children know that you have cancer and to be honest about what cancer is. Don't assume that they automatically know what it means to have the disease or that they understand that the prognoses of different cancers can vary tremendously. Explain the physical process of how cancer develops, as well as what treatments you are going to have, how long you'll get them, and what the side effects might be.

Some experts recommend delaying telling children until you are aware of the extent of your disease and what course of treatment you will be taking. Children understand best when they can see the whole picture, not just little pieces. Remember to be confident and let them come through in your tone and body language. Your optimism about beating cancer will reassure them. If you choose to wait, however, make sure that your child doesn't hear confusing tidbits as he or she overhears your phone conversations or your visits with others. Children who hear only part of the picture may imagine the worst case scenario in their minds—and try to cope with that scary future on their own. 

It's also important for your children to know that your disease is not contagious and won't affect them physically. This may even be one of the first questions that they ask you. They are not being selfish. Children often hear about people catching a cold or the flu and naturally assume that it may be the same for cancer.

How you explain it to your children and what information that you choose for them to know depends on their ages. If you have any questions about telling your children and what effect it may have, consult a child psychologist or pediatrician. He or she may be able to coach you on what to say and what not to say. If your child has some type of faith, drawing on that or involving a clergy member such as a pastor or rabbi can also be helpful—especially if you have a type of cancer that has a poor prognosis.

Here are some more thoughts on telling your child that you have cancer. This article includes some of the more common questions that kids ask so that you can anticipate what your child may be thinking and be prepared to answer him or her as clearly as possible.

Telling Your Teens That You Have Cancer

The teenage years are tumultuous enough without the appearance of cancer. And just as teens have raging emotions that can travel to extremes in a matter of seconds, just about anything goes when it comes to how they will react to your diagnosis of cancer.

Perhaps the most difficult task for you will be to continue to provide steady guidance and direction. You may feel like you should be more permissive—as if you need to make up for the extra stress that your teen is facing—but don't. Imagine yourself as a guardrail in your child's life. He or she may test the rules even more than usual (and this may surprise you), but he or she needs to know that the rules haven't changed. There is great security in having clear guidelines when the rest of life doesn't seem to be following the rules. Here are some more tips on parenting teens when you have cancer.

Telling Friends That You Have Cancer

Again, when talking to your friends about your diagnosis, be candid and honest. Sure, you can pick and choose what details you would like to share. But remember: These are the people who are going to be your support system. Being straightforward about your fears and anxieties is essential to getting the support that you need.

Telling Your Employer That You Have Cancer

There's not necessarily a right or wrong time to let your employer know that you have cancer—but there are a few things that you should think about before you broach the subject. If you share your diagnosis, you are likely to get more support, both from your employer and your fellow employees, but everyone's situation is different, and there are times when it is best to say nothing. Check out this information on telling your employer that you have cancer, which includes information on your rights as an employee when diagnosed. If you anticipate any problems or have any concerns, the not-for-profit organization Cancer and Careers has excellent and detailed information that may help and has been an advocate for many people who have cancer as they work to balance their careers with the disease. 

Bottom Line: Talking About Your Cancer

There is simply no "right" way to talk about your cancer with family and friends. The most important thing is that you share your diagnosis in the way that feels right to you—not the way that someone else would suggest. Go with your gut instinct. Perhaps the best piece of advice is to take a deep breath and be patient. People respond very differently to the diagnosis of cancer in a loved one, and it's often hard to predict how someone will respond. About the only thing that doesn't change with a diagnosis of cancer is change itself.

Sharing your diagnosis can be as hard as hearing the diagnosis yourself, but there are often silver linings. Certainly, nobody would opt to go through cancer, but amidst the heartache and the challenges, there are often rays of light, and sometimes those rays of light take the form of new or strengthened friendships. Research is now revealing that along with all of the emotional and physical scars of treatment, cancer changes people in positive ways, as well.

What to Say and Do If a Loved One Is Diagnosed With Cancer

If a loved one recently let you know that he or she has cancer, you may be feeling overwhelmed and helpless. While you want to provide support, you're also coping with your own roller coaster of emotions. The pointers, below, may help you navigate these difficult days.

  • Know What to Say: This is one of the hardest first steps. The most important thing is simply to say something. It's surprising how often loved ones flee when they hear the "C" word. These are some examples of what to say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer.
  • Be patient. It's impossible to know how you will act if you're diagnosed with cancer until you've been there. Taking a moment to step into your loved one's shoes may do wonders. Check out these thoughts from people who have cancer sharing how it really feels and what they wished their loved ones knew.
  • Take care of yourself. Many loved ones push themselves to exhaustion while caring for a friend or family member who has cancer. But you need to remember to take a little time to rest, eat well, and exercise so you have the energy to take care of someone else. Here are some tips on caring for yourself as a cancer caregiver.

Sources:

American Society of Clinical Oncology. Cancer.Net. Parenting While Living with Cancer. Updated 10/2015. http://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/talking-with-family-and-friends/parenting-while-living-with-cancer

American Society of Clinical Oncology. Cancer.Net. How a Child Understands Cancer. Updated 12/2015. http://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/talking-with-family-and-friends/how-child-understands-cancer

National Cancer Institute. Talking to Children About Your Cancer. Updated 12/02/14. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/adjusting-to-cancer/talk-to-children

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