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Breaking the News of Cancer

Breaking the News to Others

When you find out you have cancer, there’s no blueprint for what to do next. You’ve just received a diagnosis that will change your life dramatically in the days to come. One of the first things you need to decide is who you’re going to tell and what you’re going to say.

How you share the news is a very personal decision. Telling others, especially those closest to you, can be almost as hard as hearing the news yourself. It’s natural to worry about their reaction and to want to protect them from pain. This is a time though to put yourself first.

Start with a Small Circle

Start with the people in your innermost circle – your spouse or partner, close family members, trusted friends. Once you talk to the person closest to you, you may want their help in telling others. Choose what works for you in terms of how you deliver the news. While it’s good to talk face-to-face, it’s not always practical. You may prefer to call people or even send an email or text if you’re not ready for conversation.

Choose Your Words Carefully

The first time you share your diagnosis will be the hardest. Saying “I have cancer” makes it real. The words will release emotions in you and the person you’re talking to. Even if you’re the head of your family, you don’t have to be strong. It’s okay and very natural to cry.

It’s best to get straight to the point. Say something like, “I have some hard news I need to share with you. I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, and I wanted you to know.” You can go on to talk about how you found your cancer, the type of cancer and what kind of treatments are in your future. Focus on the facts and point out that are many things you don’t know yet (or aren’t ready to talk about).

As you talk with others, you may get questions that would be good for you to ask your doctor, so write them down.

Know What You Want in Advance

Before your conversation, think through what you want – and don’t want – from that person.

  • Do you want them to tell others? If so, who, how and when?
  • Do you want them to keep this confidential? Make this clear.
  • Do you not want them to share anything on social media? Unfortunately, you may need to spell this out for some people.
  • Do you not want to have to comfort them? This is a possibility you need to be prepared for. You’ll probably know who will react emotionally. Consider saying, “I know this is a shock. It is for me, too. It’s hard for me to talk more right now; let’s reconnect when you’ve had a chance to deal with everything.”
  • Do you not want feedback or advice? Say something like, “At this point, I’m just sharing the news. I’m not ready to hear advice – I’m still processing and can’t take in much more information.”

Do you need something specific? Most people will want to help. If you have a few ideas, tell them. Ask for help with rides, meals, child care or errands. Do you need them to manage someone else in your life so you don’t have to deal with their reactions? It’s perfectly okay to delegate that.

You may not yet know what you need, so ask for a raincheck. Tell them you’ll get back to them when you know more, or ask them to check back with you in a couple of weeks.

Sharing Our Burdens Divides Them

Some people won’t handle the news well or be able to meet your needs. It happens. Others will surprise you with the depth of their compassion and their willingness to help. Cancer, like many life-changing experiences, reveals our strengths and weaknesses. In most cases, sharing our burdens with those we love lessens the weight of carrying them alone.

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