Deciding to Share Your Cancer Diagnosis

Sharing usually deepens relationships and is often necessary

Mother comforting daughter sitting on sofa
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When receiving a diagnosis of cancer, it is normal to feel sad, worried, and downright scared of what lies ahead. Sharing your cancer diagnosis with others can be equally, if not more, anxiety-ridden and frightening.

By considering the personal benefits of sharing your diagnosis, as well as the potential downsides of keeping your diagnosis a secret, you can hopefully smoothly and more confidently move forward with this initial step.


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Consider the Benefits of Sharing

Sharing your diagnosis may be one of the most difficult parts of your cancer journey. Although it may feel counterintuitive, opening up about your cancer diagnosis has many benefits.

Research has shown that disclosing a cancer diagnosis usually deepens and increases the intimacy of relationships. In addition, sharing your diagnosis opens the door for social support, which will be needed as you navigate the physical and emotionally-taxing demands of treating your cancer. 

Many people are hesitant to share their cancer diagnosis because they are concerned about the effects of their illness on others. The truth is that most people, no matter their age or past experiences with cancer, are quite resilient and able to give you the comfort and support you need.

Of course, after sharing your diagnosis, there may be some people who distance themselves from you. While this can be upsetting, try to not take it personally—they are likely reacting to their discomfort with the situation and not you.

Remain focused on the support you are receiving. You will most likely be blown away by people's compassion and their desire to help you.

Consider the Downsides of Not Sharing

While it's ultimately up to you whether (and with whom) you share your cancer diagnosis, it's important to keep in mind a couple of things if you are thinking about not opening up.

For one, the efforts you spend trying to hide your diagnosis can be exhausting, stressful, and rob you of the energy you need to care for your physical and emotional needs.

Secondly, as much as you would like to think so, being secretive about your diagnosis does not usually work. People will usually notice that something different is going on with you, especially when you begin treatment. They may notice side effects like weight changes or hair loss. They may start to ask you questions, which can be upsetting or throw you off guard.

For your children especially, not disclosing your diagnosis can cause them undue worry and fear—they almost always sense when something different is going on at home. Even worse, your children may end up hearing about your diagnosis from someone else, which can be detrimental to your trusting relationship as a parent.

Consider the Logistics of Sharing

If you do decide to share your cancer diagnosis, here are a few logistics to prepare for:

  • Who will you share with? You may find that you desire to tell some people right away, like loved ones, close friends, and your boss or supervisor, but wait a while or not share at all with people you are less close with, like neighbors or work colleagues. Making a list can be helpful.
  • When will you share your diagnosis? It is important to find a good time to share your diagnosis, like when you have had time to let your diagnosis sink in, are well-rested, and perhaps have more details about your cancer (for example, the stage of your cancer). Choosing a quiet space to talk, whether that's in person or on the phone, is also important.
  • Will you designate a spokesperson? If you prefer, it is OK if you choose a spokesperson, such as a partner or a friend, to share your diagnosis. In addition, while face-to-face disclosure is ideal, in some instances, you may choose to share your diagnosis through email or social media.
  • How will I share my diagnosis? It is best to write down some notes prior to talking to people about your diagnosis. How you reveal your diagnosis to your best friend or child will likely be different than how you share with someone at work, for instance. Be aware too—there may be issues that arise from your conversations, like probing questions or unsolicited advice. Preparing for these issues as best as you can is often helpful.

If You Decide Not to Share

In some cases, especially with those whom you are not close with, you may decide to not share your cancer diagnosis (either ever or for the time being). This is an incredibly personal decision, so do not feel pressured.

To honor your privacy, be sure to tell the ones you did share with to please respect your decision and not share with others.

If someone whom you do not want to share with suspects that something is going on and begins asking you questions, you might say, "I'm going through something right now, but it's difficult for me to discuss it at this time. I hope you can respect that." Or you can simply change the subject or remove yourself from the conversation. It can be tricky, but do what makes you feel most comfortable.

A Word From Verywell

Deciding to share your diagnosis of cancer is a big first step. If you still find yourself uncomfortable or particularly anxious about disclosing your diagnosis, consider seeing a mental health professional or joining a support group. Diving into your own worries and fears may help you feel less isolated and more equipped to share your diagnosis.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hilton S, Emslie C, Hunt K. Disclosing a Cancer Diagnosis to Friends and Family: A Gendered Analysis of Young Men's and Women's Experiences. Qual Health Res. 2009 Jun;19(6):744-54.

  2. Yoo GJ, Aviv C, Levine EG, Ewing C, Au A. Emotion work: disclosing cancer. Support Care Cancer. 2010 Feb;18(2):205-15.

  3. Figueiredo MI, Fries E, Ingram KM. The role of disclosure patterns and unsupportive social interactions in the well-being of breast cancer patients. Psychooncology. 2004 Feb;13(2):96-105.

  4. American Cancer Society. (2016). How to Tell a Child That a Parent Has Cancer.

Additional Reading

By Colleen Doherty, MD
 Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist living with multiple sclerosis.