Tips for Sharing Your Cancer Diagnosis With Loved Ones

“It’s OK to communicate to them that they don’t have to fix it for you.”

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We’ve learned that "fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself," from the Harry Potter series. It also rings true when sharing a cancer diagnosis. Sometimes, you just don’t want to say it out loud, on the off chance that if you avoid telling people about it, then you won’t speak it into existence. However, ignoring the problem doesn’t erase it, and you shouldn’t have to bear this news alone.

Even if you choose just one person that you know will be a source of comfort and strength when you need it most — whether it’s taking you to your appointments, sitting with you in chemo, or to handle communicating with the rest of your network — two heads are always better than one.

What are the top tips for sharing your cancer diagnosis with friends and family?

  1. Make a list of who you want to tell — you can set phases based on who’s closest to you, who you think can be the most helpful, and who deserves to know.
  2. Designate one person who can disseminate the news to your network for you, so you don’t have to repeat yourself and relive any trauma too often.
  3. Decide how you want to tell people: It can be in person, over the phone, in email, or even a private, invite-only blog where you keep details of your treatment.
  4. Create a private and relaxing space free from distractions, time limits, or prying eyes and ears.
  5. Have some key facts handy, like the basics of your treatment plan and what to expect, since that will be most people’s first question.
  6. Set boundaries by being upfront about what you’ll choose not to discuss.
  7. Be authentic. You don’t need to hide how you’re feeling, and you can ask them to share what they’re feeling. You can feel them together and support each other.
  8. Think ahead about small, actionable services, errands, or chores that people can help you with. This way, they don’t have to badger you with questions or guilt about wanting to help.
  9. Expect that some reactions will still be unhelpful, because humans are imperfect.
  10. Remind them you don’t expect them to fix it, you just want to be together and be there for each other.

What are tips from others who've been through it?

Remind them that they don’t need to fix anything

"When you’re telling [your loved ones], it’s okay to communicate to them that they don’t have to fix it for you. They don’t have to solve all the problems and give you advice, but just to let you soak it all in, give you some time and space. Then, when you’re ready, go ahead and welcome those suggestions, advice, and opinions, when the time feels right for you."

— Aisha Patterson, diagnosed with stage II breast cancer

Be prepared for mixed reactions

"It started with just a lot of confusion. I don’t think I immediately thought to tell anybody, because I was just trying to make sense of it myself. I slowly started to tell family and friends about my diagnosis after that, through the following days and weeks, and the reaction was pretty varied."

— Erik Hale, diagnosed with stage IIIA, then IIIB lung cancer

Prioritize your peace and comfort for where, when, and how you tell them

"If there were people [who I wanted] to hear those words from me, rather than someone else, I could choose to see them in person. I could choose to do a video chat, or just a phone call or an email. If you’re worried about their reaction, it can give them time and space to process the way they need to. So there are a lot of different options to share, and it’s all about what makes you feel more at peace and comfortable."

"When I made that public announcement about my diagnosis, what I found to be the most helpful was to wait until there was somewhat of a clear treatment plan in place, because people are going to ask a thousand questions about what you’re going to do."

— Bethany Webb, diagnosed with stage II, then stage IV breast cancer

Let them grieve the life you both knew, together

"One of the hardest things about being diagnosed with cancer is hurting the people who you love the most. But don’t be afraid to hurt them. Don’t feel that you need to keep it from them. Don’t feel that they won’t understand.

"It’s okay for you to grieve this moment, [and] it’s okay for you to grieve this diagnosis. It’s okay for you to grieve the losses in your life that you may have from this diagnosis, but it’s going to make all of the difference if you can grieve together. It makes a huge difference to be able to share in that grief, and understand each other’s grief, and be able to move forward."

— Lexi Mestas, diagnosed with ovarian cancer