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Telling Others You Have Cancer

October 11, 2016

Nearly 1.7 million new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in the U.S. this year, according to the American Cancer Society.

This means that millions of families will end up sharing that difficult news with relatives and close friends. There’s no right or wrong way to communicate that you have cancer to loved ones, but it can be a delicate and emotional discussion filled with questions that patients may not yet be ready to answer.

Talking About Cancer

One recent study published in JAMA Oncology indicated that many patients with cancer used email and texting to inform loved ones of their diagnosis. They also turned to social media sites and online support groups to get suggestions about treatment options and recommendations for good doctors.

Whether you choose to communicate the news via email, text or in-person will depend on how you and your family have decided to handle your diagnosis and your emotions around the process. When you first get the news, it can be shocking and overwhelming and you may not be ready to tell anyone outside your immediate family until you’ve discussed next steps with your doctor. Some people feel more empowered when they have information, and this can help them better communicate the news to family members and friends whose immediate reaction may be filled with fear and anxiety.

The first step is to simply decide whom you want to tell. Will you tell everyone in your extended family or only tell a few close relatives and expect them to share details with everyone else? Or maybe you want to keep your diagnosis private if you’re not ready for every family member to know. Which friends will you tell? If there are people you talk to on a regular basis or see weekly, it’s probably best they’re informed since treatment can take a toll on patients and impact everyday routines. What about friends you only interact with at social events? You may not feel close enough to them to share the news and that’s fine. The decision is entirely up to you. How what about your employer and co-workers? Inform trusted colleagues or close workers when you’re ready. If you have to take days off work or an extended leave of absence for treatment, then it’s best to inform your company’s HR administrator and your boss. Most companies are very compassionate when an employee is facing a potentially life-threatening illness and you may find that the support you receive is overwhelming positive.

Once you decide who to tell about your diagnosis, you can then determine how you’ll share the news and what information you want to give. Are there people who should probably hear the news in-person? Your children, your spouse, parents and siblings likely will fall into this category. How about by phone? Most likely close friends and other relatives will be in this group. Though the study indicated that some people share their diagnosis via text, for some loved ones this may feel too impersonal and it might be better to pick up the phone and call them.

Consider what information you want to share and whether the conversation will include details about your cancer’s stage, the treatment you’ll undergo and what doctors have told you about the prognosis. For some patients, these details are too personal to share or if the prognosis is concerning they may not want to worry friends and family about what’s next. Try to think through some of the questions your loved ones may have and mentally prepare answers for them.

Telling others you have a cancer is difficult, but you’ll likely find that family and friends can offer you endless reserves of strength, support and encouragement — especially during the days when you’re tired or scared. Having a strong social support system around you during any illness has been shown to help with everything from quality of life to healing time.  Reaching out to others is the first step in surrounding yourself with their help and support. Ultimately though, sharing your diagnosis is a very personal decision, so only you can decide who hears the news and when.

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