Stories of Hope
Breaking the News About Your Diagnosis
Article date: September 29, 2001
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly a year ago, I found myself groping for words at first. Over time, however, I developed some pointers, which I hope will help others.
Tips From a Breast Cancer Survivor
Announcing good news is easy. The words flow from your lips when you’re telling family and friends about a promotion, an engagement or an upcoming vacation.
Conveying bad news, however, is much more challenging. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly a year ago, I found myself groping for words at first. Over time, however, I developed some pointers, which I hope will help others.
Break the news at your own pace. During the first few weeks of emotional “after shocks” from the diagnosis, I found myself unable to utter the word “cancer.” Still, I wanted to share the news with my relatives and friends who already knew that I’d had a biopsy and were anxiously awaiting my telephone call. I did the best I could, which is all anyone can do in this situation. When I called them, I said, “What we feared has happened.” They immediately knew what I meant.
Choose language that suits you. Nearly a year after my diagnosis, I find myself more comfortable telling people, “I was diagnosed with cancer” instead of saying, “I have cancer.” On some deep level, I don’t want to “own” this illness. Choose language that suits you when you share your news. And keep in mind that there is no one “right” way of doing this.
Enlist help from others. Nearly everyone who hears about a cancer diagnosis is eager to help. So if you’re not feeling energetic enough to telephone or e-mail others about your news, don’t hesitate to ask a friend or relative to help you. My husband and best friend became intermediaries for me, spreading the news and answering questions.
Be prepared for people’s curiosity. Most people, after hearing your announcement, will be curious about the next step. They may wonder if you will be undergoing radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy. They may wonder where and when you will have surgery. Answer their questions as best you can, but keep in mind that “I don’t know right now” or “I’m still in too much shock to think about that” are good answers.
It’s fine to draw boundaries. There is no rulebook that dictates that you must divulge every detail of your illness to any person who questions you. The decision about how much to share is entirely yours. You’re the one who sets the boundaries. If you’d rather not tell someone all the details of your surgery or if you’re not comfortable answering personal questions, you are entitled to change the topic.
Break the news as calmly as possible to children. Wait until the initial wave of strong emotions has passed before telling the children in your life. Don’t overwhelm very young children with too much information. Assure them that, even if you will be in the hospital for a while, they will see you every day and they will be cared for. Older children may already fear the word, “cancer,” so be prepared to reassure them. Emphasize the positive steps that doctors will be taking to treat your illness.
A cancer diagnosis is an upsetting piece of news to divulge, but keep in mind that there are many excellent avenues of treatment to help you live a long and healthy life. And before too long, you’ll find yourself once again having good news to share with your family and friends.
Lorraine V. Murray is a freelance writer living in Decatur, Ga.