A cancer diagnosis can feel like a long road with countless forks in its path, each one presenting a difficult decision you must make. One of these difficult decisions is who to tell about your cancer diagnosis and how to tell them.
Ultimately it is your decision and yours alone who you want to discuss your cancer diagnosis with. But sharing this information, at least with close friends and family, can strengthen your support system and help you navigate the emotional and physical challenges of your diagnosis.
Why You Should Share Your Cancer Diagnosis
When faced with a cancer diagnosis, many patients’ initial reaction is to withdraw and keep their diagnosis to themselves. They fear sharing their diagnosis will place a burden on their friends or family, or they think they can get through this alone.
However, your friends and family probably want to help, and sharing your diagnosis and needs can help you face the difficulties that lie ahead.
There are many reasons why it’s sometimes best to share your diagnosis with others, including:
- If it affects your family member or friend’s life, so that they can prepare.
- If your diagnosis has caused a change in your behavior.
- If you are looking for emotional support or even the opportunity to share your emotional experience.
- If you need help with day-to-day tasks and responsibilities.
- If you need financial support or assistance.
- If you’re having trouble accepting the reality of your diagnosis, discussing it with others can help.
- If you need to share any changes that have occurred since you first told them about your diagnosis.
The greatest and simplest reason for sharing your cancer diagnosis is that it allows your friends and family to support you, whether that’s organizational, like helping you run errands, emotional, or something in between.
Questions to Ask Yourself Before Sharing Your Cancer Diagnosis
As before any important conversation, it’s best to consider what exactly you do or don’t want to say before you enter a conversation about your cancer diagnosis. Understanding how much you want to share and even anticipating certain questions can help you steer the conversation in a way that makes you feel comfortable.
Before you share your cancer diagnosis, ask yourself the following questions:
- What do I feel comfortable saying?
While you don’t necessarily want to create a script for your conversation, you should set basic parameters for yourself regarding how you want to broach the subject and what you’re comfortable saying (and not saying).
- When and where do I want to tell this person?
Choosing a place and time that feels right can make sharing your diagnosis feel a little easier. While your comfort is your first priority, you should also account for the other person’s availability and comfort.
- How much do I feel comfortable sharing?
What aspects of your diagnosis do you feel comfortable discussing—for example, what kind of cancer you have, the treatments you plan to have, your prognosis, even your emotional reaction to it? You only have to share as much as you want to, and you can always share more later.
- What topics do I want to avoid?
There may be topics you want to avoid or areas of conversation that might be uncomfortable. For example, maybe you would prefer to avoid discussing your diagnosis in a religious context. If the other person steers the conversation in a direction you’re uncomfortable with, be prepared to provide a response that is respectful but changes the conversation.
- How will sharing my diagnosis affect our relationship?
Considering how your diagnosis will affect your relationship can help you decide whether or not to share it with a person at all. For example, if you think it might compromise a working relationship, you might choose not to tell your co-worker.
How to Share Your Cancer Diagnosis with Family & Close Friends
Most people recently diagnosed with cancer do choose to tell those who are closest to them, including family and friends.
In general, it is best to tell your partner or spouse first, then close family and friends. Your partner can help you decide how to bring up the conversation with others you are close to.
It’s also ok to decide not to tell everyone you’re close to or all of your family. There may be people who you don’t think will react to your diagnosis in a way that’s supportive for you, and it may be best to tell them later, have someone else tell them for you, or even not tell them at all.
When considering how to share your diagnosis with those closest to you, it may be helpful to follow this outline:
- Tell them in person or on the phone.
Receiving difficult information over email can leave your friends or family feeling confused or even hurt. Sharing your diagnosis in person or on the phone will also allow them to offer realtime support.
- Share whatever feels comfortable to you about your diagnosis.
As mentioned above, you can share as much or as little about your diagnosis as you feel comfortable. It’s helpful to decide what you want to share before you go into the conversation so that you can set up boundaries that feel good to you.
- Share how you’ve been feeling.
Sharing your emotional reactions—fear, anger, anxiety—with those you care about can help you work through them. These reactions are all totally normal, but keeping them bottled up isn’t helpful. If you aren’t comfortable sharing these feelings with friends or family, your cancer care team may be able to connect you to a support group.
- Ask them to share how they’ve been feeling.
When you ask friends or family, “How are you doing?” it gives them permission to ask questions about your diagnosis or express their own emotions. Doing so can be cathartic for both you and them. However, if you are not ready to discuss their questions or lend them support, that’s ok, and you don’t have to ask.
- Tell them how they can help.
Most friends and family will be eager to help, but they might not know how. When they ask, offer them specific requests or information regarding how they can best support you, from helping you get to an appointment, to running errands, to preparing a weekly meal.
How to Share Your Cancer Diagnosis with Extended Family and Acquaintances
If you have a large extended family or many friends with whom you aren’t very close, sharing your diagnosis with everyone may seem overwhelming. In this case, it may be best to find other ways to disseminate the information about your diagnosis:
- Designate a “spokesperson.” This is someone who you trust to share information about your diagnosis with other friends or family members, without you having to make several calls.
- Write a group email. While it might not be the best way to communicate your diagnosis to those closest to you, a group email can help distribute the information you’re comfortable sharing to a wide network of friends or family.
- Begin a social media group. Facebook groups can be an efficient way to communicate information about your diagnosis to extended family or friends. It’s also a great way to keep them updated regarding your treatments and prognosis or even your needs.
It might not be feasible to share every aspect of your diagnosis with every person in your circle, but sharing some information with a wide group of people only strengthens your support system. This can be invaluable as you begin your cancer journey.
How to Share Your Cancer Diagnosis with Colleagues
How or whether you share your diagnosis with your workplace depends largely on the environment and culture in which you work. In most cases, you will likely need to communicate some information about your diagnosis to your boss or HR department so that they can accommodate your treatments.
If you do decide to tell your co-workers, you may want to discuss your diagnosis with a close work acquaintance first. They can help you decide how to share information about your diagnosis. Common platforms for sharing your diagnosis at work may be a brief email or statement in a meeting.
How to Share Your Cancer Diagnosis with Children or Teens
If you are the parent or caretaker of children, it will be important for you to share information about your diagnosis with your children, especially because it will affect their lives. Children tend to be direct, so be prepared for uncomfortable questions (such as the topic of death) and honest answers.
Tips for Sharing Your Diagnosis with Kids
- With young children, keep your conversations short and simple. Share the facts in a way that is clear and easy to understand. Keep your conversation in the present.
- With teenagers or older children, share more specifics and answer their questions in detail. Speak about both the present and future ramifications of your diagnosis.
- Make sure they understand this is an open conversation. Encourage them to ask questions, now or later.
- Make space for their emotions, and ensure they know it’s ok to feel angry, sad, confused, or scared.
- Reassure them that they are loved and will be supported no matter what.
- Communicate that they are in no way responsible for your diagnosis or care, and that they are allowed to continue to live their lives as normally as possible.
Asking for Support from Your SERO Cancer Care Team
At SERO, our 30-plus board-certified radiation oncology physicians and extensive patient care teams are here to help you handle your cancer, from diagnosis to treatment to recovery. While much of our support is centered on your treatment, we’re also here to help you through the difficult emotional decisions inherent to your diagnosis. This includes how to share your diagnosis with your friends, family, and community.
Cancer is a difficult disease to hide, and it’s likely that those around you will have questions as you begin to experience the side effects of your cancer and treatment. When questions arise, your SERO cancer care team is here to help you communicate about your diagnosis in a way that feels good to you.
To learn more about SERO and our radiation services, call us at 704-333-7376.