How to tell family and friends you have cancer

One of the hardest decisions to make after a cancer diagnosis is how to share the news.

Do you tell people, or keep it to yourself? Who should you tell? How many people need to know? How much should you tell them? And what about sharing on social media?

Regardless of what you decide, it’s important to handle this in a way that makes you feel most comfortable.

Bottom line: “It’s personal,” said Jozie Allen, LCSW, a counselor with OSF Cancer Support Services.

Here are some things to consider when making your decision.

Physical and emotional support

Even if you are inclined to keep your cancer diagnosis to yourself, telling the people you live with is a good idea. Once you begin treatment, they are likely to notice changes in your appearance and daily routines. They also might need to provide at least minimal assistance.

“The biggest thing is to talk to whoever might be involved with your care, whether it’s for practical, physical or emotional support,” Jozie said. “You don’t want it to be a surprise to them if they suddenly have to step in.

“Who you tell depends on the type of relationship you have with them. Not all of us are fortunate to have a family support system available, so that support might need to come from friends or co-workers. But it’s good for someone to know and be there.”

Your primary support person can help you with transportation to and from treatments, or pick up groceries or medications. Even if you don’t require help with physical tasks, you might be surprised by how much emotional support you need.

“It can be good to share with family or a close friend. They can divide the weight, so not everything is on your shoulders,” said Alejandro Sanz, MD, OSF Medical Group – General Surgery.

Be honest and personal

When the time comes to have that conversation about your cancer diagnosis, Jozie and Dr. Sanz agree that the most important thing you can do is be honest.

“Be honest and factual,” Jozie said. “Provide whatever information you determine is appropriate, but be honest about what’s actually happening. You don’t have to tell them everything, but don’t minimize the situation.”

The setting in which you deliver the news is also important. If at all possible, you should do this in person. After all, these are the people who are closest to you.

“Don’t cold-call or text,” Jozie said. “It’s best if you set up a time to meet. Tell them, ‘I have something important to tell you, but I’d like to do it in person. Can we set up a time to talk?’ Setting aside time will help you really make the most of the conversation and allow you to answer their questions as best you can. A soft approach helps open up communication.”

Plan what you will say

Think ahead. Plan what you want to say about your cancer diagnosis and how you want to say it. And think about what you don’t want to say. Try to anticipate questions that might be asked and decide how you will answer them. Write notes for easy reference. Rehearse.

If your close family includes children, take their ages into account and consider framing a special message for them.

“For example, you might tell children you’re having surgery, but not tell them all the details,” Jozie said.

“With adults, how much you tell them depends on your relationship. If they are going to be part of your care, it’s important that they know the facts and what they could be dealing with.”

You also should consider who you’ll tell outside your intimate circle. If you have a job and your treatment will cause you to miss work time, your supervisor will need to know. Co-workers will wonder what’s going on. Again, you don’t need to give details, but it’s important to plan what you will say to them.

“An acknowledgment that you have cancer and maybe a general overview of the type of treatment you’ll be having is plenty,” Jozie said.

“If there’s some information you don’t want to share, that’s OK. If you’re faced with questions you don’t want to answer, have a generic response ready – ‘I’m going to keep that within the family,’ or ‘I don’t feel comfortable sharing that.’ That way, you know what you’re going to say and you don’t get caught scrambling. Otherwise, you might share more than you want.”

Pros and cons of social media

These days, lots of people share news of their medical conditions on social media.

“That can be a double-edged sword,” Jozie said.

“It can be stressful and time-consuming to update all of your friends individually, so posting on social media can be beneficial because you only need to say it once. Another benefit is that you are the one disseminating the news, so everyone gets the same information. It’s not getting distorted.

“But there are possible dangers. You want to be careful about sharing too much of your health record. What you post could be traumatic for somebody else. You shouldn’t get negative feedback, but you could, so you need to be prepared for that.”

An alternative to mainstream social media is Caring Bridge, which offers a free online tool to set up a website where you can post health updates. Users can control access to their site.

“In the end, it’s really up to you and what you feel comfortable sharing,” Jozie said.

About Author: Kirk Wessler

Kirk Wessler started work as a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare in January 2019. A Peoria native and graduate of Bradley University, he previously worked for newspapers in Missouri, Texas and most recently at the Peoria Journal Star.

Kirk and his wife, MaryFrances, have five sons, four daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. He’s on a quest to master playing guitar and golf. He also loves to travel, especially driving back roads.

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Categories: Cancer