To Share or Not to Share? That is the Question

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One of the most difficult aspects of having cancer is deciding who to tell and when. For young adults who may be attending college, maintaining an active social life, or starting a family, these questions are especially critical.

Karen Fasciano, PsyD, and her colleagues in the Young Adult Program at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC), addressed these questions and others at the 11th annual Young Adult Cancer Conference last month. Bruce MacDonald, MSW, LICSW, who leads the young adult cancer support group at DF/BWCC, spoke with patients about sharing their diagnoses with three critical groups:

Family and Friends

While most family and close friends know about a diagnosis from the beginning, revealing your situation to anyone can be difficult. Your close friends will likely want to know, even if there isn’t anything they can do to help. Once you tell your friends, you may be surprised at how much closer you get.

“Your close friends and family are those you’re inclined to share the most with, but I found myself sharing less with them about how I felt,” said one patient. “I thought it could potentially hurt them if I showed my vulnerability.”

Karen Fasciano, Psy.D., and Phoebe Souza, LCSW, MPH

Karen Fasciano, Psy.D., and Phoebe Souza, LCSW, MPH

Make sure your family members are aware of your comfort level when it comes to sharing. Give them permission to disclose your diagnosis with others, or ask them not to share. Whatever you decide, keep an open line of communication with parents, siblings, and friends to prevent any misunderstandings.

Romantic Partners

Starting a new relationship is nerve-wracking without adding cancer into the mix. Most young adult patients agree that, while potentially awkward, it’s best to be open in the beginning of a relationship to ensure you have your partner’s support. If someone cannot handle your situation, move on. As one patient said, It’s not your job to help someone else with their feelings about your cancer.”

Employers

When it comes to telling bosses, colleagues, or school officials, most young adults agree it’s best to have a plan tailored specifically for each person and situation.

If you’re applying for jobs, tell your references how much, if anything, you want them to share about your medical history. Employers may see it as a positive if you managed work or went to school during treatment, but you reserve the right to tell your new boss and colleagues.

Keep in mind that you don’t know what your colleagues are going through, either. They may be in a similar situation themselves or with a loved one, so don’t assume they won’t understand.

There is a trial and error aspect to sharing any diagnosis, but it is important to make sure you are comfortable with who knows. Speak with a therapist, attend a support group, or write about your experience to help cope with your diagnosis. Once you’re more comfortable, you might be ready to share.

The Young Adult Program holds young adult cancer support groups each month to discuss these issues and others. Email yap@dfci.harvard.edu for more information, and save the date for the 12th annual Young Adult Cancer Conference on March 28, 2015.

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