Telling Someone You Have Cancer: Common Conversation Issues

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Learning you have been diagnosed with cancer is an overwhelming experience on its own. Figuring out how to share your diagnosis with others, if you decide to, and navigating the potential issues that stem from these conversations can feel impossible.

Rest assured though—with the right mindset and some simple strategies, you can get through these conversations (and the issues that may arise from them) smoothly and effectively.

Preparatory Strategies

Like most things in life, it's best to be prepared—and sharing your cancer diagnosis is no exception.

Make a List

To prepare for your conversation with others, it's first important to make a list of the people with whom you would like to share your diagnosis. This list may be small and include those close to you, like your relatives and your best friend, or it may be more lengthy and include neighbors, community members, and work colleagues.

In some cases, you may prefer (and this is perfectly reasonable) to designate a loved one, such as a partner or close friend, to share your diagnosis.

In the end, your list is up to you, and it may change as your cancer care evolves.

Craft Your Words

Once you have decided on your list, jot down some notes on exactly what information you want to reveal. You will likely find that you want to share more details (like how you found out you had cancer or perhaps even your treatment plan) with some people and less with others.

If you have children, it's important to prepare what you will say separately. How your child reacts to your diagnosis depends on many factors, such as their age, and how you as their parent react to and cope with the diagnosis.

Calm Yourself

Prior to disclosing your diagnosis, try to calm yourself—it's a big step, and while you have control over what you say and how you present the information, you do not have control over how others will react or what they will say in response.

Some self-calming strategies you may consider include practicing mindful meditation, taking deep breaths, or engaging in a relaxation exercise like yoga or progressive muscle relaxation.

Responding to Unpleasant Reactions

Be aware—there will be a wide array of reactions once you share your diagnosis.

While the majority of people will express concern and show compassion with an encouraging word, hug, or touch of your hand or arm, others may react in a negative way—for example, profusely crying, "freaking out," or avoiding eye contact, to name a few. These reactions can make you feel uncomfortable, hurt, or vulnerable.

If someone's reaction is unpleasant to you, know that it is OK to exit the conversation at that time. If you are comfortable enough, you may tell them how their reaction is making you feel.

You might say, "I know my diagnosis may come as a shock to you. I'll give you time to process it and then maybe we can reconnect" (if that is what you want to do). Or you can say, "I really need your support during this time. If you cannot give that to me, I understand, but please get the help that you need in the meantime."

Bottom Line

When disclosing your diagnosis, keep in mind that it is not your job to comfort anyone at this time (children and perhaps a spouse or partner are exceptions). Try to remain focused on your own emotions and not necessarily on protecting or soothing others.

Addressing Probing Questions

Out of concern or perhaps curiosity, people may ask you questions about your cancer diagnosis.

For those with whom you want to share more details, you may consider writing an email, sending a group text message, or starting a blog. This way you do not have to repeat yourself over and over (unfortunately, these repetitive conversations can be draining and trigger negative emotions like anxiety or anger).

For those whom you would prefer to know less or nothing about your specific cancer care, you can consider directing them to a website on how your type of cancer is diagnosed and treated. Or you may simply state, "I'd prefer to not share any more details, but I do appreciate your concern and support at this time. "

Bottom Line

Remain firm on how much information you want to share with any individual—it's your prerogative, so do not feel pressured or obligated to share anything more than what you are comfortable with.

Fielding Unsolicited Advice

As you tell others about your diagnosis, you may receive unsolicited advice. While these pieces of information or tips often come from a good place, they may not be what you want or need to hear at that time.

For instance, a friend may tell you that you should see a certain surgeon or oncologist, or that you should consider adhering to a specific diet or seek out religious guidance. Some people may even advise you to "stay positive" or to think of all the wonderful things in your life and focus on that instead of on your cancer diagnosis.

With unsolicited advice, it is normal to feel upset and/or confused. In these situations, it is best to say something like, "I know you are trying to help me with your kind words. At this time, though, I simply need a listening ear." If setting boundaries does not work, exiting the conversation is also a reasonable approach.

Bottom Line

Most people are truly compassionate and just trying to help, so guiding them in how they can help you (by being good listeners, for example) will often go a long way.

Managing Health Literacy Barriers

Even though most people have heard the word "cancer," they may have misconceptions about what cancer is. For instance, a person may believe that your cancer is contagious or a death sentence. Even more, should you choose to share your treatment plan, do not be surprised if some people look at you with blank faces when you use terms like "chemotherapy" or "radiation."

In these situations, you can either decide to educate and clear up any misconceptions, or you can simply move forward with the conversation and perhaps, direct that person to a website or book on cancer.

Bottom Line

There is not necessarily a right or wrong way to deal with health literacy barriers in your conversations. However, if your children are involved, it is important to dispel cancer myths, such as cancer being contagious or always fatal.

Coping With Lack of Support

While in most instances, disclosing a diagnosis of cancer increases social support, sometimes the opposite occurs—you may find that some people distance themselves or perhaps even worse, minimize your diagnosis. 

In these instances, try not to take their distance personally. They are likely uncomfortable and/or overwhelmed with your situation (not with you). That said, for the time being, it may be best for you to accept the distance and direct your energy towards relationships with those who are able to support you.

Bottom Line

It can be disheartening when someone distances themselves from you because of your cancer diagnosis. Try to remain focused on your cancer care and the support you do have.

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

  2. 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.

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