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How to Tell Family and Friends About a Cancer Diagnosis

A new cancer diagnosis brings a fraught time, filled with more questions than answers. It can be difficult to share news of a diagnosis, even with – or perhaps especially with – your closest family and friends. Begin with those who are closest and most supportive to you, and remain as honest and authentic as you can about how you feel and what you need.

Here are some tips to guide you through these conversations with family, friends and colleagues.

Table of contents:

  • First, take care of you
  • Be authentic
  • Share your news with those closest to you
  • Triage, if that helps
  • Advocate for what you need
  • How to share the news at work
  • How to handle unhelpful responses
  • Pull in support services

First, take care of you

Before thinking about how to tell others about your cancer diagnosis, take time to think about how you feel. You may feel sad, hopeful, angry, afraid or brave. You may even feel these emotions all at once or in successive waves. Remember that all of these feelings are valid, and it’s healthy to allow yourself to feel them. There’s no one “right” way to respond to a cancer diagnosis.

Be authentic

Be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling and what you need. When you share your diagnosis, you don’t need to pretend to feel differently than you really do, and you don’t need to smile when you don’t feel like smiling. You don’t need to reveal any more details than you’re comfortable sharing with others. If you could use help or support, be upfront with yourself about what you need. Being authentic will help both yourself and those with whom you share your news.

Share your news with those closest to you first

What you share with whom will be a personal choice. You might want to talk about the type of cancer you have, what kind of treatments you may receive or what advancements have been made with that type of cancer recently. You might want to talk about how your body feels or how you feel emotionally. Start with those people who need to know first and those people who will offer you the support you need.

Sometimes, people come to terms with reality when they share news with others. You may find your emotions changing as you discuss your diagnosis with others. Maybe you’ll feel more hopeful; maybe you’ll become more worried. If your friends or family ask you questions that you don’t know the answer to, those questions may be good topics to discuss with your health care providers at upcoming appointments.

Triage, if that helps

Some people may find it emotionally draining to share news of their diagnosis again and again. If that’s the case, enlist a trusted friend or relative who can help tell others about your diagnosis on your behalf. Some cancer patients find it helpful to create a web page on a site like CaringBridge so they can update everyone all at once, without having to provide details person by person. Other people find it’s healing to discuss their cancer journey with others. What works for you depends on how you feel most comfortable.

Advocate for what you need

People will want to help you -- and chances are, many people won’t know how to be helpful. Your friends and family can appreciate hearing concrete ways that they can support you during your cancer journey. Will you need help with errands or housework? Do you want someone to go to appointments with you? Do you just want to have friends to talk to about anything but cancer? You’ll probably find that different people attract to different roles. Some are natural caretakers, some are great meal preparers, and others might be masters of distraction.

Also, be clear about your expectations of privacy. If you want your friends and family to share this news with others, let them know. If you prefer that they don’t share it with anyone, let them know that, too.

How to share the news at work

If you’ll need time off for appointments and treatments, you’ll probably need to notify your supervisor at work. When you do, be clear about whether you want other colleagues to know or not. If your supervisor or colleagues would like additional information about supporting someone with cancer, American Cancer Society offers Cancer in the Workplace tip sheets.

Always remember that you’re not alone. Advocacy groups like Cancer + Careers and Triage Cancer offer free resources for people with cancer who are navigating workplace, insurance and legal issues.

How to handle unhelpful responses

It’s bound to happen. Someone will respond to your news in a way that’s profoundly unhelpful, even if they’re trying to be supportive. Be ready with a response that lets them know, perhaps a straight-forward, “That doesn’t help me,” or “Can we talk about something else?” Your feelings are very important and deserve to be respected.

Pull in support services

You do not have to go through a cancer journey alone. In addition to your friends and family, cancer hospitals offer a variety of supportive oncology services that you may find incredibly helpful. AnMed Health offers cancer support services, including dieticians, yoga classes and nurse navigators. In addition, AnMed Health’s Cancer Learning Center has free information available to patients and their families. To learn more about support services for cancer patients, call AnMed Health at 864.512.4636. 

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