Talking to Friends and Family

This section can help you navigate topics and mindsets you may find yourself facing when simultaneously processing your own experience and preparing to share it with others.

A new cancer diagnosis can be an overwhelming and alarming experience. You most likely will have many different emotions as you learn more about your diagnosis and begin to learn about treatment options. It’s normal to wonder, “Why me?” or to feel sad, angry, or afraid. The below may help you navigate topics and mindsets you may find yourself facing when simultaneously processing your own experience and preparing to share it with others.

Take Some Time to Process

Before sharing the news with others, it’s important to first acknowledge your own emotional response. It’s OK to let yourself feel the way you do.

Sharing your diagnosis may bring up sensitive or unsettling topics, like mortality. You may feel fear, hope, sadness, or even experience a change in your sense of identity. This is normal—and you shouldn’t be surprised or critical of yourself if you need time to internally process your diagnosis before opening up to others. 

You’re in Control of What You Share

While it’s important to talk about your feelings and diagnosis with someone, remember: you get to decide the information you’re comfortable sharing. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries to help protect your emotional state. For instance, some patients may want to keep this information from their employer or children initially, or tell different people varying amounts of detail. Sometimes, telling those closest to you helps you take in the reality of what’s happening. 

It may be even more important for single people without supportive family members nearby to let close friends know what’s happening. Think ahead so you can tell them what they can do when they ask how they can help – people who live alone often have a few extra needs compared to those who live with others.

Think about how much you want to share. Consider when discussing your diagnosis whether you want to use the specific word “cancer” or something a bit vaguer, like “medical condition.” You don’t need to share every detail about your health with everyone, and it’s OK to tell someone you’re not comfortable discussing a particular aspect right now (or, ever). This may be good opportunity to consult with a professional about the words you decide to use, particularly in special circumstances such as speaking to young children or your employer. 

Sharing With Your Employer

If you work, think about whether you want to let your co-workers know what’s going on and how much they need to know. Co-workers and acquaintances often find out later, although sometimes you’ll need to tell a supervisor or someone in Human Resources that you have a medical problem if you’ll need to take time off. Different people require different levels of information. It’s important to be upfront with your supervisor if your diagnosis will affect your work. Many employers are willing to be flexible and work with their employees on making accommodations.

If you do decide to tell co-workers, you can start by talking with and getting ideas from someone you trust at work. Some people tell co-workers in a group via a carefully planned email or brief statement in a meeting, so that everyone starts with a basic understanding of what’s happening. There is no one right answer for everyone – it depends on your preferences and the culture at your workplace. 

- Tip: Make a List

Whether it’s mental or written, organizing a list of people you plan to tell can be helpful. A good way of creating this list is to order it from those who will be most affected to least. You may want to make a list of people that you want to talk to in person, and another list of friends that you socialize with less often and have another friend or family member contact them with the news. 

- Tip: Learn Your “Trigger” Points

Think about your ‘‘trigger points” or topics that are too sensitive for you to talk about yet. Do you get angry when people question your choice of treatments? Maybe this is a topic you’ll have to avoid. Does it annoy you when people bring religion into it, saying things like, “God never gives you more than you can handle?” Think about the things that people have said or could say that bother you. Then, plan a response that’s comfortable for you and cuts off the conversation. And once you’ve shared what you wish to share, be prepared to change to another topic. Maybe you can say something like “I really get tired of talking about cancer. Let’s talk about something else.”

Pick Your Platform

You can share your cancer diagnosis in different ways, including social media, email, phone, or in person. You might choose a certain medium depending on your audience.

You should also consider whether you want to tell people alone, or with a supportive friend or family member present. You may also want to have someone else share the news for you, with or without you there. Not everyone needs to find out the same way, and there is no right or wrong way to do this. How you notify others is entirely up to you.

It may make sense to have a centralized way of sharing updates, like passing along information in an email chain or a social media group.

If you’re not the blogging or emailing type, patient websites like Caring Bridge let you post regular updates on your status. Remember, it’s not just about breaking the news of your diagnosis, it’s also about managing the ongoing tsunami of questions regarding surgeries, treatment, test results, etc. Caring Bridge allows you to control what’s going out. You or your family can choose to share what you want and the site is restricted, so not just anybody can look at it. 

Remove Distractions

While there’s never a perfect time to say “I have cancer,” there may be some moments that are better than others. When you do, eliminate potential distractions like cell phones, computers, or tablets. You may also want to plan to have the conversation during a quieter part of your listener’s day. Additionally, try to be mindful that the person you’re sharing with is about to experience some level of distress. Make sure they have enough time to digest the news and process what you’ve just told them.

Expect a Response

After you share, you should anticipate a variety of responses. Some people may be overcome with emotion. Others might have questions, and some may want to share unsolicited advice or an anecdote. People may also shy away from you out of fear of not wanting to say the wrong thing. Try to be as ready as you can for all of it, even preparing responses for topics you’re not ready to address or questions you don’t know the answer to. Remember, it’s always OK to tell someone you don’t want to have an in-depth discussion or even talk about it at all any further.

Keep Life as Normal as Possible

As much as you can, allow yourself and your family members to keep life as normal as possible while you’re getting treatment. Encourage your family to keep doing the things they always did without feeling guilty (enjoying hobbies, playing sports, exercising, spending time with friends, and so on). Children, especially, benefit from the routine, but adults also find that it offers them an anchor for day-to-day life.


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