How to Tell Your Family You Have Breast Cancer

Verbal and non-verbal communication strategies to start a conversation

You are not obligated to share your breast cancer diagnosis with anyone. In some cases, telling those you’re close to can help cope with the plethora of emotions you will feel after receiving the news.

On the other hand, many people become uncomfortable or don’t know how to respond to that news, so it can be challenging to console those you love when you’re the one with a life-changing disease. Whatever you decide to do is a personal decision. 

This article discusses how to share your diagnosis with those you love.

Woman and son

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Talking Points to Help You Share Your Diagnosis

The first thing to consider is how you will tell your friends and family. Focusing on specific aspects of the difficult conversation will help you get through it. Talking points and other factors to consider include:

  • Triggers: Before you tell your family or friends, you want to know what topics are too sensitive or difficult for you. For example, if discussing treatment brings up stress, you might want to avoid that topic when talking about your diagnosis.
  • Choose your details: If you're telling friends or family, you'll likely have more than one conversation. Because of that, going over every detail can be tiresome, so choose what details you want to disclose.
  • Focus on the emotional impact: The impact a breast cancer diagnosis has on you can be overwhelming, but your family and friends can support you by being there for you emotionally. While it's tempting to put on a brave face, letting your friends and family know how angry, sad, or frustrated you are will help you vent and give them a better idea of how to help you through it.
  • Inquire about their feelings: While you are the one with cancer, they love someone who has the disease. Their feelings are also important, so speak to them about how they feel about it. If you're not ready to be a support shoulder for them, wait to have this conversation until you have the emotional capacity to worry about others.
  • Consider the delivery method: You can share your news in person, over the phone, via email, or even on social media. How you choose to share the information is up to you. However, in-person may be better for the people you're closest to if you're willing to have a more in-depth conversation.

Should You Use Social Media to Announce a Cancer Diagnosis?

Sharing a cancer diagnosis on social media may seem impersonal, but it’s an excellent way to share your news with your friends without having the same conversation several times. It also allows you to take a step back from responding to questions you may not be ready to answer.

Explaining Breast Cancer to Children

Telling children about a breast cancer diagnosis can be difficult. Sometimes, they may not entirely understand what is happening or how to react.

That said, children often respond to bad news in a way that mirrors the adults in their lives. When speaking to children about a cancer diagnosis, there are many things to consider, such as age and timing.

Children of different ages have a varied understanding of cancer. The best thing you can do is focus on how old the child is. For children under eight, you can tell them the bare minimum so they understand what it means to have cancer and how their lives may be affected. Older children and teenagers will likely need more information and have more thoughtful questions to be answered.

Talking points to include in your discussion with children include:

  • The name of the cancer
  • Where it is in the body
  • What treatment is being done

The timing of when you tell a child is also essential. You want to choose a time when they feel calm and safe. If you have children of varying ages, consider talking to them separately so that you can tailor the conversation to their specific needs.

Always allow for open discussion and questions, even if it may be difficult. In some cases, a child may believe that they are to blame for the illness or that it is contagious based on what is known as "magical thinking." It's crucial that you tell them that they had nothing to do with it and they cannot catch cancer from someone else.

Talking to Your Child More Than Once

When speaking to children about your cancer diagnosis, it’s essential to consider it an ongoing conversation. They may come to you at different times with new questions or concerns they didn’t think about the first time.

Reacting to Their Reactions

When you tell people you love that you have breast cancer, they will react in various ways depending on how they cope with stress and if they’ve ever experienced cancer in their lives before. Some reactions and how you can deal with them include:

  • Distress/sadness/anger: If a person becomes distressed after hearing the news, you can try to help them stay positive. You can do this by explaining breakthroughs in treatment and current statistics regarding survivability. While it may be difficult to console someone else when you have cancer, family members need to be able to feel their emotions as well.
  • Not responding how you would like: If someone in your life responds by saying all the wrong things, it’s important to remember that they are coping with the news in the best way they know how. If they do something insensitive or make light of the news, it doesn’t mean they don’t care. They may need more information, support, and time to process.
  • Offering unwarranted advice: When people hear that someone they love has cancer, they may jump into savior mode. They will try to advise you on what to eat or drink or tell you to try so-called cures they may have heard about. If this is the case, you can gently affirm that your treatments will be decided by yourself and your medical team alone, but you appreciate their help.
  • Avoidance: A person may hear the news and begin withdrawing from you. When this happens, it isn’t about you but rather their inability to cope with your cancer. Being open about your diagnosis and reassuring them that there’s nothing they need to do except provide support may be an excellent way to quell their anxieties about being around you.

Mental Health and Your Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Your mental health, and the mental health of those around you, will likely be affected negatively by a new diagnosis of breast cancer. When people hear the word cancer, they assume the worst, even if there are new and effective treatments and survival rates are improving. When considering you and your loved ones' mental health concerning your cancer diagnosis, remember there is support. The American Cancer Society has a lot of options for support groups for people affected by cancer.

How to Politely Establish Communication Boundaries 

Boundaries establish an ongoing sense of respect for one another’s feelings and needs. When diagnosed with cancer, you must implement additional boundaries based on how you feel about your diagnosis and how much you’re willing to share with others.

To make sure you can set boundaries, you'll have to give it some thought early on and determine how much you want to share and how often you'd like to discuss your diagnosis. You do not owe anyone more than you are comfortable with sharing your experience.

You can set healthy boundaries by:

  • Telling friends, family, or colleagues that you will only share as much as you’re comfortable with and no more than that
  • Asking your friends and family to avoid gossiping or sharing your news with others you’re not close to
  • Stop any conversations that make you feel uncomfortable or anxious about your diagnosis, such as friend-of-a-friend stories regarding breast cancer that didn’t have positive outcomes
  • Use your energy for the things you need to get done, and use your leftover energy for the things you love most
  • Be clear with people when you receive invitations that your plans may change at the last minute depending on how you feel
  • Establish a routine with your medical team regarding how you want to receive information and discuss the next steps or treatment progress beforehand. For example, let them know if you want a call with results as soon as they come in instead of waiting until the next appointment.

Putting Yourself First After Being Diagnosed with Breast Cancer

While it may be hard to switch to always putting yourself first after being diagnosed with breast cancer, especially if you’re used to caring for others, you must do so. Putting yourself first will help keep your energy levels up, lower stress, and ensure that treatment goes as well as possible.


There is no easy way to tell the people you love that you have breast cancer. You are also not obligated to share the news. However, many people want their loved ones to know about the diagnosis because it helps to establish a strong support system during treatment.

When you have the conversation, please remember to focus on the aspects of your diagnosis that inform your loved ones about your diagnosis. You are free to include or leave out any details you wish, depending on your comfort level. When your friends and family find out, they will feel various emotions. You can set boundaries politely to ensure that you're respecting your feelings while allowing them to feel theirs.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do you have to tell your family you have breast cancer?

    While many people choose to tell their family they have breast cancer, it's not obligatory. You get to choose who knows about your diagnosis and who doesn't. That being said, having a solid support system can make getting through cancer treatments easier, so if that is your family, it's something to consider.

  • How does a breast cancer diagnosis affect your mental health?

    Being diagnosed with breast cancer can severely impact a person’s mental health. People newly diagnosed may experience new or worsened anxiety or depression. It’s normal to feel these feelings because the life-altering news is just that: life-altering.

5 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.
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  2. American Cancer Society. Helping children when someone they know has cancer.

  3. Woźniak K, Iżycki D. Cancer: A family at risk. Prz Menopauzalny. 2014 Sep;13(4):253-61. doi:10.5114/pm.2014.45002

  4. Niedzwiedz CL, Knifton L, Robb KA, Katikireddi SV, Smith DJ. Depression and anxiety among people living with and beyond cancer: a growing clinical and research priority. BMC Cancer. 2019 Oct 11;19(1):943. doi:10.1186/s12885-019-6181-4

  5. Beth Israel Lahey Health. Coping with cancer by setting boundaries.

By Angelica Bottaro
Angelica Bottaro is a professional freelance writer with over 5 years of experience. She has been educated in both psychology and journalism, and her dual education has given her the research and writing skills needed to deliver sound and engaging content in the health space.