Talking to Your Family About a Cancer Diagnosis

“It’s very important to have a support system in place.”

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When you find out you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you might worry about how your friends and family will handle the news, and how that information might impact your relationship. You may also be considering not telling your loved ones about your cancer diagnosis at all.

“Facing cancer is probably the most challenging experience that a person might go through,” says Rujuta Saksena, MD, hematologist and oncologist. “It's very difficult to go through that journey of diagnosis and treatment alone.”

Whether or not to tell people about your cancer diagnosis is 100% your decision, but it’s important to consider the benefits of having a solid support system. “We're not here to tell you who you're supposed to tell or not, but I would encourage people to find their most trusted friends and to make sure they're aware so they can be there for you,” says Joseph Pazona, MD, a board-certified urologist.

Let People Be There for You—and Show Them How

“All of us at some point require help. Going through something like cancer is extremely challenging,” says Dr. Saksena. “If [patients] are clear about expectations and they communicate this to their family members or their care team, [this] can help the rest of us take care of them in the best way possible.”

Having loved ones come with you to appointments, for example, can be a huge help. When you’re learning more about your diagnosis and treatment options, there’s a lot of information coming at you and it can be overwhelming.

“If you're going to be undergoing different treatments, you need help. You need people to drive you from appointments [and] to pick up medications because you may not be feeling a hundred percent. This is a team effort. Who's on that team is totally up to you, including your doctor,” says Dr. Pazona.

Talking to Children About Your Cancer Diagnosis

When considering telling your kid(s) about your diagnosis, it may be tempting to shield them from the news. Experts, however, encourage the opposite approach.

“Children are very intuitive and they often sense that something is amiss,” says Dr. Saksena. “So it is important for them, for parents especially, to communicate with their children in an honest way, so they are not confused or overwhelmed with what's happening at home.”

Describe to your children the facts of what’s going on, without giving them any false promises. “Just speak to the facts of what you know, that, ‘Mommy or Daddy has something in their body that's trying to hurt them, but that we're working together as a team to fight this so we can be here for you for many, many years.’ I think honesty is the best policy,” says Dr. Pazona.

Get Professional Help If You Need It 

If you’re struggling with the idea of telling your loved ones about your diagnosis or not sure how to start the conversation, consider seeking outside help.

“We have members of cancer teams that are very experienced in how to break news to people, including social workers, nurses, and even the doctors. So although this is new for you, it's not new for us. So if you need any help at all, ask us. That's why we're here for you.”