After Diagnosis: A Guide for Patients and Families

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How do I talk to people about my diagnosis?

Here are some tips for talking with some of the key people in your life. You can find more in our other pieces: Talking With Friends and Relatives About Your Cancer and Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis. They can be read online, or call us to have free copies mailed to you.

Your family

A cancer diagnosis often affects family roles and routines. For example, your family may need to help you with or even take over jobs you once handled alone. You and your loved ones should talk about what changes need to be made to your family routines. This way, you can make decisions as a team and work together to make everyone as comfortable as possible with the changes that are now part of your family life.

You may not be able to do all that you used to do. You may be afraid that you’ll become a burden to your loved ones. But if there’s no medical reason to do less than you did before, try to do as much as you can. You and your family should also continue doing things you used to do together – like playing games or exercising. Doing so is a healthy and fun way to keep working as a team.

“Protecting” versus sharing

Cancer affects the whole family, not just the person who has it. People in your family may sometimes try to “protect” you or other family members from upsetting news or events. But you can’t protect someone all the time, and it uses up energy that could be used in better ways. If your family seems to be trying to protect you from becoming upset, you might gently tell them that a better use of their energy would be to support you and take good care of themselves.

When you let your family members know how you feel, both emotionally and physically, they will be able to better understand what you are going through, give you support, and help you make informed decisions.

Dealing with unexpected feelings

You may find that you’re taking out your anger and frustrations on the people you care about most. And even in the most loving families, members sometimes feel resentment or anger when one person is sick and can’t do their part for a while. This is often true when the changes last for a long time.

Though this kind of anger can be confusing and upsetting for everyone, it’s a common response to a major life change. The best thing you can do for each other is be honest about what you’re feeling. Fears about the future and feelings of guilt, frustration, and confusion are often less upsetting when you share them with others in a calm, honest manner. Doing so can also help free all of you from the burden of unspoken fears and concerns.

Sometimes you and your loved ones will feel out of step with each other. For instance, you may feel quite hopeful while your spouse is feeling scared. This can be upsetting, but remember, people react differently to stressful situations. Some family members may become more absorbed in work. Some may become overly involved in your treatment or personal life, while others may remove themselves from the situation and become involved in activities outside the home. Though it may be hard to do, talking about differences in your coping styles will help you respect and understand each other and, in the end, work together.

Talking with children about cancer

If there are young children in your family, you may be worried about how they will respond to cancer. How a child reacts to upsetting news often depends on how the adults are handling it. Many times adults have their own strong, private feelings about a cancer diagnosis, and they want to protect the children from their fears and worries. Family members should decide ahead of time how best to talk to their children about cancer.

Keep in mind that if children are not given honest answers, what they imagine may be worse and even more upsetting. Both adults and children can learn to cope with cancer and its treatments. When talking to children about cancer, you should give them truthful information that they can understand. It’s best to share small amounts of information over time and keep the answers suitable to their age and level of understanding. Be sure to give children a chance to ask questions and have their questions answered.

If you would like expert help, you could have a social worker or school counselor talk with your child, too. They may know of support groups for children in your area. They can also give the child a source of support that’s outside of the family.

Romantic relationships

If you are single, you may be unsure how and when to share a new cancer diagnosis with a romantic partner. Trust yourself to be the judge of the best time to share this news. Remember that this decision is yours to make. But try to give this person a chance to deal with the news – don’t assume they will back away from your relationship because of the cancer. Whatever the reaction, you are not at fault for sharing the news at a “bad time.” You may find it helps to practice what you will say with a friend before talking with your new partner.

Your friends and adult relatives

The decision to discuss your cancer diagnosis with friends and adult relatives is a private one. You may find that in the beginning you only want to tell your spouse or partner and 1 or 2 close friends or family members. Over time you may want to share with a circle of friends and loved ones. Overall, it’s usually best to be honest. Keeping cancer a secret can lead to more stress at a time when you need the support of others. Remember, too, that your friends will most likely learn about your cancer at some point. If and when they do, they may feel hurt if you haven’t told them. This can sometimes make it harder for them to be supportive in the future.

Before you talk to others about your illness, think through your own feelings, your reasons for telling them, and what you expect of them. People react differently to upsetting news, so try to be ready for this. Many times people don’t know what to say, and this makes them feel awkward and uncomfortable. They also may feel sad or be afraid of upsetting you. They may withdraw or distance themselves but not explain that it’s because they feel sad. Some may become overly polite and careful or ask too many personal questions.

Sometimes people don’t mean to, but they react in hurtful ways because of their own fear or lack of information. For example, someone may say, “I know just how you feel,” when they have never had cancer. This may upset you, because you know that it’s not true. Or, someone may begin to tell you a sad and discouraging story of another person with cancer who died. This is the last thing you want or need to hear! Sometimes people are just talking because they feel the need to respond, even though they don’t know what to say. You can help them by telling them what you’re OK talking about and what makes you uncomfortable. You could also tell them that you only need them to listen to you and you don’t need them to say anything other than that they care and are there for you.

Most likely your friends’ hearts are in the right places. They probably want to help you any way they can, but they aren’t sure how to be helpful. Be ready to tell them how they might help. You might ask them to do things like drive you to and from the clinic, do your grocery shopping, mow the grass, take your children to school or sports activities, or pet-sit for you.

Once people have had time to adjust to the news, try to help them understand what’s happening with you. Explain what kind of cancer you have and the treatments you’ll need. Give them a clear and honest picture of what your life is like right now. Find out what they think and how they feel. Try to answer their questions. Be direct with others and express your needs and feelings openly. It’s usually more stressful to hide emotions than to express them. Sharing can help you and those close to you.


Last Medical Review: 03/06/2014
Last Revised: 04/07/2014