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How to Talk to Others About Your Cancer Diagnosis

How to Talk to Others About Your Cancer Diagnosis

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21


A new cancer diagnosis can be an overwhelming and shocking experience. In addition to navigating the complex emotions that may come after learning of your diagnosis, you face the emotions of the people who learn of your diagnosis: family members, friends, colleagues, and your community.
Before you have conversations with others about your diagnosis, it may be helpful to figure out how you feel and what you’re comfortable sharing. Discussing your diagnosis with a therapist or counselor can help you decide who you want to tell, what you want to say, and how you want to say it. Several great resources, including the Cancer Support Community, offer free telephone and chat options with licensed social workers and mental health professionals.
Though telling someone you have cancer can be difficult, it can also be immensely helpful. Talking to friends, family, and other members of your support network can help you process your diagnosis and start thinking about what’s ahead. Combating cancer doesn’t have to be a solo effort! When you tell others, you’re building a strong support network that will help you feel empowered for what’s ahead.

Spouse/Partner

Your spouse or partner will likely be the first person you confide in about your cancer diagnosis. As the person closest to you, it’s important to be honest—not only about your diagnosis, but how you feel about it. This will allow you to get the support you need.
Your partner will likely be feeling a lot of emotions, too. Not only will he or she be concerned for your health, but there may be fears of how this diagnosis will impact your life together. Your partner’s concerns may include short- and long-term physical implications, caregiving challenges, sexual problems, fertility concerns, and financial worries. Listen to these concerns, and work together as you navigate your diagnosis and treatment options. Having your partner as an active participant in decision-making will help to address any concerns either of you may have and solidify your status as a team. 
If you find it difficult to discuss these topics with your partner, consider meeting with a counselor experienced in working with relationships affected by cancer. Sometimes, it’s helpful to have a neutral party to help guide you through difficult conversations and decisions. Psychology Today offers a nationwide directory of cancer therapists, including couples’ cancer therapists for virtual and in-person sessions.

Young Children

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It’s never easy to tell children bad news, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid it altogether. When sharing your diagnosis with a child, be honest and keep it simple. Though you may feel like softening the blow with terms like “bad cells” or “boo-boo,” research shows the use of euphemisms can lead to confusion and anxiety. If you’re not sure what to say, you may find it helpful to come prepared with age-appropriate children’s books about cancer, which you can read together and discuss. (In addition, Cancer Support Community has a useful guide, and #endcancer’s kid-friendly video about how cancer works can be a great one to share.) Adolescents and adult children may have more complex questions about your diagnosis; let them ask, and answer honestly to the best of your ability. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know,” so long as you follow it up with, “But let’s find out together.”

Family

Anticipate a variety of responses from your family members. Some may be overcome with emotion, while others may jump right into problem-solving mode by offering advice. This wide spectrum can be overwhelming, so it’s okay if you’re not up for discussing your diagnosis through a series of one-on-one conversations. Your job right now is to focus on getting healthy, and that may mean delegating conversations that drain your physical and emotional energy. Asking one (or several) close family members to relay information on your behalf is always an option, and may help insulate you from a barrage of phone calls and text messages.

Friends

It’s likely your friends will spring into action and offer to help you with anything you need—after all, what are friends for? Initially, you might not know what kind of help you’ll need as you progress through treatment. It’s okay if you need some time and space to figure that out. Thank your friends for their love and care, then let them know you’ll reach out once you have a better idea of the kind of support you need during treatment. In the interim, feel free to articulate whatever it is you need now—to cry, to think out loud, or even just to talk about something other than cancer for a few minutes. Your friends will have your back.

Colleagues

When you’re ready, it’s wise to be upfront with your supervisor if your diagnosis will affect your work (Cancer and Careers has some useful tips for doing this). Many employers are willing to be flexible and work with their employees on making accommodations, and some laws, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and Americans with Disabilities Act, require them to do so (note that if you need help identifying and asking for reasonable accommodations under the ADA, the Job Accommodation Network can be invaluable). Several free resources, including the US Department of Labor information line at 1-866-4-USWAGE (1-866-487-9243), are available to help you address any concerns you may have about your employment, health benefits, and rights.

Other Contacts

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Informing others of your diagnosis may make some aspects of your day-to-day life easier; for example, your child’s teacher at school may benefit from knowing you are beginning treatment, so he or she can support your child. If you’re part of a faith community, you may feel buoyed by the prayers of your congregation. Some find social media to be an efficient way to update friends, family, and supporters as you progress through treatment and recovery. All of these are options, but not requirements—when it comes to your diagnosis, you have the right to disclose as much (or as little) as you wish.
No matter who you are talking to, there is no one “right” way to share your diagnosis. The most important thing is that you do it in a way that feels comfortable for you. You can have a conversation in-person, with a phone call, through a text, or even on a social media post. You can cry, laugh, or curse. You can disclose all the details or nothing at all. And if, at any point, during the conversation, you decide you want to change the subject, you can do that, too. The people who love and support you will respond with just that—love and support.

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at support@jasperhealth.com.