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Tips For Telling People You Have Cancer

Finding out you have cancer is hard, but telling the ones you love can be even harder.

The truth is, there’s no instruction manual for sharing difficult news like a cancer diagnosis. But, there are some strategies that can help you do so.

Paula H. Finestone, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, recommends thinking of your social connections as concentric circles.

“There are some people you’re very close to who you’ll want to share everything with,” she said. “With others, perhaps you will want to keep it vague. And some, you may not want to tell at all.”

Here, Finestone offers some advice for broaching the subject with each group, as well as what to do when you don’t want to talk about your diagnosis:

Sharing With Your Inner Circle

Conversations with your partner, children, or other close family members and friends call for plenty of time and privacy.

There’s no right or wrong way to break the news, but taking some time to think about what you want to say, anticipating the questions your loved ones might ask, and considering possible responses can help you feel prepared. It’s also a good idea to tell them in advance that what you need to talk about is very important.

Even if you’re worried about making your loved one upset or scared, resist the urge to put on a happy face for the sake of protecting them. Being honest about how you feel is better for everyone.

“It’s normal and okay to be emotional,” Finestone said. “It means what we’re feeling is real, because emotions don’t lie.”

Sometimes, having backup in the form of your care team can be helpful, too.

“Your care team is there to help you convey this information to your loved ones,” Finestone said. “If talking about complex or technical details of your diagnosis feels too overwhelming, your doctors can step in to explain.”

If you worry that a loved one might become more upset than you and you won’t be able to comfort them, a social worker or counselor can serve as a mediator as well.

Sharing with Everyone Else

Finestone suggests picking a point person to dispense information to a list of extended family, friends, and others in your community.

“Assign a press secretary for yourself. It helps to pick a relatively calm person,” she said. “It might help to set up a system in which you pass the information along to that person to share, and they can distribute it to those you want to keep informed.”

You shouldn’t feel obligated to share sensitive information with those who ask additional questions. It can help to come up with a response ahead of time to cut off a conversation that’s delving too deep. Something as simple as “Thanks for asking, but I’d rather not talk about it right now,” can work. Remember, it’s your news. You get to decide who you want to tell, how you want to tell them, and how much information to share.

On the other hand, if you do feel an urge to talk, go ahead.

“For a lot of people, telling the story makes it real,” Finestone said. “It helps their brains process and accept it.”

If you need additional tips for talking about your diagnosis to others, don’t be afraid to reach out to your care team for support. This includes social workers and psychologists, who may not be treating your cancer directly, but are an integral part of your support network.