How to Tell Someone You Have Cancer

Telling someone you have cancer can be difficult. There will never be a perfect time to share this news, and often, people worry this information will place a burden on those closest to them. These barriers—difficulty, timing, and guilt—may sway people to avoid the topic entirely, and instead try to deal with a cancer diagnosis privately.

While discussing your diagnosis may be draining, Carrie Wechsler, MSW, LICSW, clinical social worker at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, implores people to begin this dialogue in some capacity rather than suffer in silence.

“There isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ way of doing it. The most important thing is to find someone you trust and are comfortable with to talk to.”

Carrie Wechsler, MSW, LICSW

While the person you share your diagnosis with can be a friend or family member, sometimes consulting with a social worker or psychologist first can help you to guide the conversation. By working through your emotions with a trained professional, you have a chance to address your struggles and fears in a judgment-free zone.

To get started, here are seven tips from Wechsler.

Take time to process

A new cancer diagnosis can be an overwhelming and shocking experience. Before sharing the news with others, it’s important to first acknowledge your own emotional response. Sharing your diagnosis may bring up sensitive or unsettling topics, like mortality. You may feel fear, hope, sadness, or even experience a change in your sense of identity. This is normal—and you shouldn’t be surprised or critical of yourself if you need time to internally process your diagnosis before opening up to others.

Remember: you’re in control

While it’s important to talk about your feelings and diagnosis with someone, remember: you get to decide the information you’re comfortable sharing. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries to help protect your emotional state. For instance, some patients may want to keep this information from their employer or children initially, or tell different people varying amounts of detail. Just make sure to let the person know if you have decided not to tell certain people, or if you’d prefer, they didn’t share the news until you’ve had a chance to tell others.

Another factor to consider when discussing your diagnosis is whether you want to use the specific word “cancer” or something a bit vaguer, like “medical condition.” You don’t need to share every detail about your health with everyone, and it’s OK to tell someone you’re not comfortable discussing a particular aspect right now (or, ever). This may be a good opportunity to consult with a professional about the words you decide to use, particularly in special circumstances such as speaking to young children or your employer.

Uou get to decide the information you’re comfortable sharing.

Make a list

Whether it’s mental or written, organizing a list of people you plan to tell can be helpful. A good way of creating this list is to order it from those who will be most affected to least.

You don’t have to tell everyone at once, and to make the process more manageable, start with immediate family members and close friends. When you’re ready, it’s important to be upfront with your supervisor if your diagnosis will affect your work. Many employers are willing to be flexible and work with their employees on making accommodations.

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Pick your platform

You can share your cancer diagnosis in different ways, including social media, email, phone, or in person. How you notify others is entirely up to you. You might choose a certain medium depending on your audience.

You should also consider whether you want to tell people alone, or with a supportive friend or family member present. You may also want to have someone else share the news for you, with or without you there. Not everyone needs to find out the same way, and there is no right or wrong way to do this.

From there, it may make sense to have a centralized way of sharing updates, like passing along information in an email chain or a social media group.

Remove distractions

While there’s never a perfect time to say “I have cancer,” there may be some moments that are better than others. When you do, eliminate potential distractions like cell phones, computers, or tablets. You may also want to plan to have the conversation during a quieter part of your listener’s day. Additionally, try to be mindful that the person you’re sharing with is about to experience some level of distress. Make sure they have enough time to digest the news and process what you’ve just told them.

Expect a response

After you share, you should anticipate a variety of responses. Some people may be overcome with emotion. Others might have questions, and some may want to share unsolicited advice or an anecdote. People may also shy away from you out of fear of not wanting to say the wrong thing. Try to be as ready as you can for all of it, even preparing responses for topics you’re not ready to address or questions you don’t know the answer to. Remember, it’s always OK to tell someone you don’t want to have an in-depth discussion or even talk about it at all any further.

You should also prepare yourself for the response of those who will want to help. Initially, you might not know what is going to be the most helpful. Feel free to say that, and instead ask them if it’s OK for you to reach back out later, when you figure out what you need. Alternatively, you can also ask people to offer specific forms of help to make your response easier. For example, it may be more helpful to say, “If you’re picking up groceries, can you get me a few things while you are at the store?”

Be kind to yourself

Be kind to yourself throughout this process. It is normal to feel emotionally drained after a conversation like this. Try to not feel guilty if you need to do something to help you recharge your batteries after telling someone.

Lastly, if you need a break, take it. Multiple brief discussions can be just as effective as one lengthy conversation. It’s OK to tell someone that it’s hard for you to talk about this right now, and you’d appreciate it if you could continue the conversation later.

If you decide you want to take a break from talking about your cancer. try saying, “This is not easy to talk about right now. Can we talk another time when I am up for it?”