Telling Friends and Family You Have Been Diagnosed with Cancer

How to Explain Your Cancer Diagnosis

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 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.

Do You Have to Tell Everyone 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 best to only tell those who you know will be a positive support system, such as immediate family 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.

Before you tell your loved ones, take note of a few things. Everyone will respond differently depending on their own personality as well as any prior experience of cancer. Most people 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 anyway) for the almost inevitable happening that some people won't respond the way you would hope they would respond.

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 their news, at least for sharing the news with those who aren't as close to them.

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 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 effective the support they can give to 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 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. As parents, we have a natural instinct to protect their feelings, and we often do so by omitting information. Many psychologists agree that this hurts them more in the long run, so 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 they automatically know what it is or that the prognosis of different cancers vary tremendously. Explain the physical process of how cancer develops and what treatments you are going to have.

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. Your optimism about beating cancer will reassure them. If you choose to wait, however, make sure your child doesn't hear confusing tidbits as she overhears your phone conversations or your visits with others. Children who hear only part of the picture may construe the worst case scenario in their minds—and be left to deal with it alone.

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

How you explain it to your children and what information you choose for them to know depends on their ages. If you have any questions about telling your children and what affect it may have, consult a child psychologist or pediatrician. 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 clergy such as a pastor or rabbi can also be helpful—especially if your have a cancer with a poor prognosis.

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

Telling Your Teens 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—like you need to make up for the extra stress your teen is facing—but don't. Imagine yourself as a guard-rail in your child's life. She may test the rules even more than usual (and this may surprise you) but needs to know that the rules haven't changed. There is great security in rules and 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 You Have Cancer

Again, when talking to your friends about your diagnosis, be candid and honest. 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 you need.

Telling Your Employer You Have Cancer

There's not necessarily a right and wrong time to let your employer know you have cancer—but there are a few things you should think about before you broach the subject. There are pros and cons on each side of the decision on when to tell. If you share your diagnosis you are likely to get more support both from your employer and 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 you have cancer, which includes information on your rights as an employee when diagnosed. If you anticipate any problems or have concerns, the not-for-profit organization Cancer and Careers has excellent and detailed information to help, and has been an advocate for many people with cancer as they work to balance career and cancer.

Bottom Line: Talking About Your Cancer

There is no simply no right way to talk about your cancer with family and friends, and every person's cancer and relationships are different. 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. Perhaps the best word of advice would simply be to say 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 and all it means 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 challenges, there are often rays of light, and sometimes those rays of light take the form of new or strengthened friendships. Research is now telling us that along with all of the emotional and physical scars of treatment, cancer changes people in good ways as well.

For Friends and Family

If a loved one has recently let you know they have cancer, you're probably feeling a little overwhelmed and a lot helpless. At the same time that you want to provide support, you're coping with your own roller coaster of emotions. Here's a few tips to help you navigate these days.

One of the hardest first steps for loved ones is to know what to say. The most important thing is simply to say something. It's surprising how often loved ones flee when they hear the "C" word. Not only does this bring up your feelings about your loved one who has recently been diagnosed, but it can pull the scab right off any pain from the past that stems from other loved ones who have had cancer. Here are some tips on what to say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer.

A second important step is to be patient with your loved one who has recently been diagnosed. It's impossible to really know how you will act if diagnosed with cancer until you've been there. Cancer emotions span the spectrum from the most loving to the most ugly, and can go back and forth within a matter of minutes. Taking a moment to step into your loved one's shoes may do wonders. Here are some thoughts from people with cancer sharing how it really feels and what they wished their loved ones knew.

And finally, don't forget to take care of yourself. Many loved ones push themselves to exhaustion in caring for a friend or family member with cancer. That said, the experts that tell us that we need to take care of ourselves first know what they are saying. Here are some tips on caring for yourself as a cancer caregiver.


American Society of Clinical Oncology. Cancer.Net. Parenting While Living with Cancer. Updated 10/2015.

American Society of Clinical Oncology. Cancer.Net. How a Child Understands Cancer. Updated 12/2015.

National Cancer Institute. Talking to Children About Your Cancer. Updated 12/02/14.

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