Sharing a Prostate Cancer Diagnosis With Loved Ones

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If you are thinking about revealing that you have been diagnosed with prostate cancer, whether it's to a family member, friend, or an acquaintance, you may be expecting a specific reaction. Maybe you're expecting someone to share the burden with, or looking for someone who'll listen and sympathize, or someone who will partner up with you and help you continue living a vibrant life.

Typically, however, when you tell someone that you have cancer, assuming they have never been diagnosed, they won’t know how to respond. They may go into a story about someone they knew with cancer, or tell you facts they know, or try to be helpful and share solutions that may not relate to your situation. Perhaps they mean what they say, but much of the time they are just trying to connect with your situation. Unable to project themselves into your shoes, they may end up saying inane things.​

Deciding to Share Your Diagnosis

After a few of these instances, you may shy away from sharing your diagnosis with others. Ultimately, it's your choice. Not telling others does not mean you are in denial, but if you do choose to tell, be prepared to explain what prostate cancer is and to do a bit of education. While a good person to tell is usually one you know is a sensible, capable, and reasonable person, one who is a good listener, patient, and be willing to listen to a long explanation, in reality not everyone is this way. You may still choose to share.

Being unable to talk about such a monumental event like a cancer diagnosis leaves people with strong feelings of isolation. The usual supposition, when cancer is mentioned, is that mortality is near. As you learn more about prostate cancer, however, it slowly dawns that this particular type of cancer is unusual and that high mortality isn't as associated with it. Even for the minority of men with advanced types of prostate cancer, mortality is typically postponed 10 to 20 years.

I’m a prostate cancer expert—and a professional explainer. We routinely schedule a one-hour visit to explain prostate cancer to a newly-diagnosed patient. Prostate cancer is very different from what most people assume, so it's important to share the truth when sharing your diagnosis with others, too.

What and How to Share

When a newly-diagnosed patient reveals that he has been diagnosed with family and friends, he can be sure that they will assume the worst. Knowing this, it's important to choose the right time and place to share.

Choose a time and place with no distractions, and be upfront and clear that you have something important to share, rather than casually mentioning it. Depending on the person, they may or may not overreact.

You may want to start by sharing specifics about your diagnosis, and that means understanding your diagnosis before sharing it with others. Your doctor is a great resource for that. Then try to reassure them about how prostate cancer is different from other cancers, that it should be watched closely rather than treated. The person's assumption, whether it is voiced or not, maybe that you are in denial, or that you have a death wish or perhaps you have fallen into the hands of an incompetent doctor. Explain clearly that this is not the case.

Some types of prostate cancer may be more advanced. If this is the case, explain what next steps you'll be going through. If your prostate cancer is benign, put this in perspective for the listener, who is likely not a prostate cancer expert.

Also be clear about how the person can be part of your journey. Often times others want to help, but don't know how. Or, they know they should say something, but they don't know what. Acknowledging this goes a long way. Be specific in what the person can do for you, whether it's to help you research, help drive you to treatments, just listen, or nothing at all.

Do your best to replicate the educational process you received, even if challenging. Usually, in my office, when a patient and his family come in to learn more about their diagnosis they have a lot of fear and confusion. After an hour of professional explanation, they become noticeably calmer. Of course, they listen very carefully. They are highly motivated to understand the nature of their cancer.

When patients try to replicate this educational process with others outside the office they face a more uphill situation. To explain a complex situation to someone who may be only half-interested, regarding a topic that is scary and confusing, can be very challenging. Most people would rather not think about it. If not a family member, they don’t possess the same high motivational desire to understand like someone diagnosed with the disease—and that's OK. If you understand this and accept it, you don't have to keep pushing it. You may find that each conversation you have is different, and learn more about your relationships along the way.

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Article Sources
  • Prostate Cancer Statistics:
  • Moschini, Marco, et al. "Low-risk Prostate Cancer: Identification, Management, and Outcomes." European Urology (2017).
  • Andriole, Gerald L., et al. "Mortality results from a randomized prostate-cancer screening trial." New England Journal of Medicine 360.13 (2009): 1310-1319.