How to Talk with Your Loved Ones About Your Cancer Diagnosis

Two people sitting on bed with one hugging the other

Explaining your cancer diagnosis to your loved ones can be a tough job, especially when you’re still reeling from receiving the news yourself. If you search online for something like “How to tell my kids I have cancer,” you’ll see thousands of pages offering advice, each one different from the next. Though a set script would certainly be easier to follow, the truth is that there’s no singular best way to break the news. Every family is different, and even individual members of the family will react differently to the news of your cancer diagnosis.

It might be hard—really hard—to tell your spouse, children, parents, or siblings about your diagnosis. But doing so is the beginning of building your support network, which you’ll need as you progress through treatment. Though there’s no guaranteed way to make this conversation an easy one, there are some general dos and don’ts experts recommend you follow as you prepare to disclose your diagnosis.

DO: Tell. It may feel tempting to protect those you care about by not telling them about your diagnosis, but keeping it a secret can become challenging over time. This is particularly true if your cancer requires intensive treatments or hospitalization. Keeping your cancer a secret can cause additional stress and anxiety—not only for you, but for your family if and when they do find out. You don’t have to call a gathering of your extended family or post your diagnosis on social media (in fact, you should think carefully before doing that), but it is a good idea to sit down with members of your immediate family, who will be most directly involved in your daily life.

DO: Practice with a pro first. Rehearsal can help you shape what you want to say. A mental health professional, oncology social worker, or support group are all places where you can learn about different strategies for sharing your diagnosis, anticipate ways various family members might react, and practice responding in a way that feels best for you.

DON’T: Minimize or lie. Your first instinct may be to put on a happy face and insist everything will be fine, even if you’re not sure that’s really the case. This is particularly true when talking to your children about your diagnosis. Experts recommend following a script that is honest and forthright: “Years ago, people often died from cancer because doctors didn’t know much about how to treat it. Doctors have learned a lot more about it since then, and now there are treatments that can cure many cancers. These are the treatments I’ll be using…” You might also find it helpful to use additional resources, like this Kid-to-Kid video created by MD Anderson Cancer Center, to help you break the news.

DO: Find age-appropriate resources to help children understand. A five-year-old child will process information about cancer differently than a fifteen-year-old one. Using age-appropriate resources, like those found on the Cancer Support Community or CancerCare for Children, can help frame your diagnosis and treatment in a way that every member of your family can understand.

DO: Ask, “How are you feeling about this?” Each member of your family will likely respond differently to the news of your cancer diagnosis. Taking a moment to check in can help you gauge what their concerns are, whether it’s a young child wondering if it’s his fault you have cancer, an adolescent who worries your cancer is contagious, or your spouse’s fears about your future together.

DO: Set boundaries on what you will (or won’t) discuss. You may not be ready or able to discuss certain things yet, and that’s okay. Find a way to gently let your family know: “I haven’t gotten that far yet,” or “I’m not ready to talk about this right now, but I’ll let you know when I am” are perfectly fine responses to questions you’re not able to answer just yet.

DON’T: Ignore questions you can’t answer. It’s likely you’ll be faced with a question you don’t know the answer to. Instead of ignoring the question or making up an answer, it’s best to be straightforward: “I don’t know, but let’s find out together.” If you’re comfortable, invite your family to your next doctor’s appointment or schedule a video call for a Q+A with an oncology social worker. Letting your family members be a part of the information-gathering process can help them feel more comfortable with your diagnosis, as well as equip them to better support you in your treatment journey.

DO: Be honest about how things may change. Children, by nature, can be self-centered. Their first concern after learning about your diagnosis may be whether you’ll still be able to help them with homework or coach their youth basketball team. Though your intent may be to keep things as normal as possible, it’s important to let your family know how things may change as you begin treatment. Your schedule may be disrupted, your energy levels might be low some days, or you might need to avoid certain gatherings when your immune system is compromised. Talk to your family about how your treatment might affect them, and brainstorm ways to adjust to these changes as a team. Through it all, reassure your kids someone will be there for them, no matter what happens: “If Dad’s ever not available to take you somewhere, Grandma or Uncle Joe will.”

DO: Designate a point of contact. When you’re ready to share your diagnosis with those outside of your immediate family, you may find it helpful to designate a central point of contact for information and updates. This could be a spokesperson who is comfortable with communicating with those in your group, or you can share information and updates through an app or designated social media group. Instructing family members to use this contact point can keep your loved ones up to date without draining your time or emotional energy. This point person may find the resources at Share the Care to be of particular value.

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 [email protected].