How to Explain Your Cancer Diagnosis to Loved Ones

Talking to friends and family about your cancer diagnosis is not an easy task. The emotions you are feeling are most likely new and coping with the reaction of the person you are telling can add stress and anxiety about the diagnosis. 

This article helps ease you through the process by discussing who to tell and finding the right words when you tell your partner, children, friends, coworkers, and employer. If you are supporting a loved one with cancer, there is a section for you as well.

Woman and mature woman sitting on a porch swing, both distressed
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Deciding Who To Tell

Many people feel they should notify everyone around them when they are first diagnosed with cancer. This feeling is normal. However, it may not be the best choice for you. You may find that it is better to tell only those who will be part of a positive support system, such as immediate family members and very close friends.

Try not to feel guilty for not sharing your diagnosis with certain friends. Your only job right now is to focus on getting healthy, and that may mean not sharing your diagnosis with everyone in your life. This is especially true for those who drain your energy level.

Preparing for the Talk

Your friends and loved ones will respond differently, depending on their personality and any prior experience they've had with cancer. Prepare yourself (as much as you can) for the fact that some people won't respond in the way that you would have hoped.

Having a Spokesperson

Keep in mind that you don't necessarily have to be the one to share your diagnosis. Many people find it easier to appoint a "spokesperson" to share the news with people who are outside their innermost circle. 

Finding the Right Words

How in the world can you begin sharing your diagnosis? The biggest challenge is saying the words, "I have cancer." Saying those words aloud can release emotions that you may have been suppressing.

Telling another person can somehow make the disease more real. Although it may be difficult to find the right words, it is very therapeutic. This is because you are admitting that you are sick. Admittance is the first step in coping with cancer.

When people first hear the word “cancer," they automatically think the worst. Try to educate them on the extent of your disease and treatment. The more knowledgeable they are, the more effectively they can support you.

Coping With Others Emotions

Being surrounded by people with excessive fear and anxiety about your diagnosis may not allow you to cope in a healthy manner. How you cope, rather than how others are dealing with your disease, is what is most important.

Talking To Your Partner

Your spouse, partner, or best friend will likely be the first person you confide in about your cancer diagnosis. They will likely be your caregiver during treatments and can be your best support system.

It is important to be completely honest about your cancer diagnosis and prognosis. Allowing your partner to accompany you to appointments can help you feel less isolated on your journey.

Combating Cancer As A Team

When you have a partner who gives you support, combating cancer begins to feel like teamwork, helping you feel more empowered.

Talking To Children

It is never easy to tell children bad news. Parents have an instinct to protect their children's feelings, so sometimes they choose to omit certain information. While this intention is good, many experts agree that this hurts kids more in the long run. Being straightforward and honest is best.

It's important to let your children know that you have cancer and to be honest about what cancer is. Don't assume they know what it means to have the disease or that they understand that the prognoses of different cancers vary tremendously.

Explain the physical process of how cancer develops and your treatment plan. Tell them the type and length of treatment as well as potential side effects. Children understand best when they have the whole picture, not just little pieces.

Try to be confident in your tone and body language to help reassure them. If you delay telling them, try not to let them overhear phone conversations or your visits with others. Having partial information causes them to imagine the worst-case scenario. They often try to cope with that scary future by themselves.

Teaching Children Cancer is Not Contagious

It's important for your children to know that your disease is not contagious and won't affect them physically. This may even be one of the first questions that they ask you. They are not being selfish. Children often hear about people catching a cold or the flu and naturally assume that it may be the same for cancer.

If your child has some type of faith, drawing on that or involving a clergy member such as a pastor or rabbi can also be helpful. This is especially true if you have a type of cancer that has a poor prognosis.

If you have teenagers, you probably already know that their emotions fluctuate drastically. The same is true about their reaction to your cancer diagnosis.

Try to provide steady guidance and direction. You may feel like you should be more permissive to make up for the extra stress, but that is not always what they need.

Surprisingly, they may test the rules even more than usual, but reassuring them that the rules haven't changed helps them in the long run. There is great security in having clear guidelines when the rest of life doesn't seem to be following the rules. 

How you explain it to your children and what information you choose for them to know depends on their ages. If you have any questions about telling your children and what effect it may have, consult a healthcare provider or licensed mental health professional. They may be able to coach you on what to say and what not to say.

Talking To Friends

Try to be honest when talking to your friends about your diagnosis Sure, you can pick and choose what details you would like to share. But keep in mind that these are the people who are going to be your support system. Being straightforward about your fears and anxieties is essential to getting the support that you need.

Talking to Coworkers and Employer

There's not necessarily a right or wrong time to let your employer know that you have cancer. However, there are a few things that you should think about before you broach the subject.

If you share your diagnosis, you are likely to get more support from your employer and your coworkers. But everyone's situation is different, and there are times when it is best to say nothing.

Cancer and Careers not-for-profit organization that provides excellent, detailed information about telling your employer. They can also help you understand your rights as an employee when diagnosed. They have been an advocate for many people who have cancer as they balance their careers while fighting this disease.

Supporting a Loved One With Cancer

If a loved one recently let you know they have cancer, you may be feeling overwhelmed and helpless. While you want to provide support, you're also coping with your roller coaster of emotions. The following pointers may help you navigate these difficult days:

  • Know what to say. This is one of the hardest first steps. The most important thing is simply to say something. It's surprising how often loved ones flee when they hear the "C" word. These are some examples of what to say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer.
  • Be patient. It's impossible to know how you will act if you're diagnosed with cancer until you've been there. Taking a moment to step into your loved one's shoes may do wonders. Check out these thoughts from people who have cancer sharing how it feels and what they wished their loved ones knew.
  • Take care of yourself. Many loved ones push themselves to exhaustion while caring for a friend or family member who has cancer. But you need to remember to take a little time to rest, eat well, and exercise so you have the energy to take care of someone else. Here are some tips on caring for yourself as a cancer caregiver.


Talking to friends and family about your cancer diagnosis often makes things more real. Sometimes expressing those words for the first time can be emotional. 

Your spouse, partner, or best friend is usually the first person you will talk to. They will also most likely be your primary support through this journey.

Telling your child that you have cancer can be especially difficult. Learning about common questions that kids ask can help you anticipate what your child may be thinking. It can also help you be prepared to be upfront and answer them as clearly as possible.

There’s really no wrong or right way to tell co-workers or your employer about your diagnosis. It’s up to you how much and what you want to say.

A Word From Verywell

There is no "right" way to talk about your cancer with family and friends. The most important thing is that you share your diagnosis in a way that feels right to you. Follow your instincts, take a deep breath, and try to be patient. People respond very differently when their loved one has cancer, and it's often hard to predict how someone will respond.

Sharing your diagnosis can be as hard as hearing the diagnosis yourself, but there are often silver linings. Certainly, nobody would opt to go through cancer, but amidst the heartache and the challenges, there are often rays of light. Sometimes those rays of light take the form of new or strengthened friendships.

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. Korotkin B, Hoerger M, Voorhees S, et al. Social support in cancer: How do patients want us to help? J Psychosoc Oncol. 2019;37(6):699-712. doi: 10.1080/07347332.2019.1580331.

  2. Usta YY. Importance of social support in cancer patients. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention. 2012;13(8):3569-3572. doi: 10.7314/APJCP.2012.13.8.3569

  3. National Cancer Institute. Talking to Children about Your Cancer.

  4. National Cancer Institute. When Your Parent Has Cancer: A Guide for Teens.

By Brandi Jones, MSN-ED RN-BC
Brandi is a nurse and the owner of Brandi Jones LLC. She specializes in health and wellness writing including blogs, articles, and education.

Originally written by Lisa Fayed