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How to tell your family you've been diagnosed with cancer

Published: 21 Jun 2017

Being diagnosed with cancer is a heart-stopping moment, the shock is enough to send anyone into an emotional tailspin and it may take a while to sink in.  Not only that, you also need to break the news to the people who love you most, and that can be incredibly difficult.   But one thing’s for sure, it’s important that you have the support of your family, friends and wider network around you to help with the emotional and physical challenges ahead.  On your own you are strong but with support you are stronger.

Although there is no right or wrong way to tell them about your diagnosis, there are ways that you can make this tough conversation slightly easier – for you and for them. Here are some tips to help you tell the people closest to you, in a gentle and sensitive way.

 

Make sure you have their full attention

It’s important to pick the right moment to share your cancer diagnosis with family and friends. Make sure it’s in a private place, face-to-face and that you have time to have a proper, in-depth conversation. 

Your loved ones are likely to react emotionally, and they may have a lot of questions to ask. Therefore, make sure you have their full attention with no distractions so they have time to take in what you’re saying.  They will need to find their own coping mechanisms and are likely to display a range of emotions.  Many will express shock, tears, hugs and even anger, but other people simply won’t be able to digest the news immediately and may appear calm and almost distant.

Set it up tactfully – don’t just blurt it out

Think carefully and even prepare notes, for you and for them, about what you’re going to say before you sit down and have the conversation. This also helps to process how you feel about your diagnosis, and to get your head around the many details that doctors and support staff have provided up to this point. 

Only tell people when you are ready, and when you do have the conversation, preface it by letting them know you’re about to tell them some important news and you’re telling them because they are an important person in your life. 

Break down all the information you want to share into small chunks

As you break the news to family and friends, chances are you will have to repeat the same information over-and-over again. Try to remain patient, and break down everything you know into small, digestible chunks. This is the first they know about your diagnosis and the shock may mean they find it difficult to take things in.

Make sure you explain what each medical term is in everyday language, and check in regularly during the conversation to make sure the person you’re telling understands and knows what you’re coping with, so they can support you in the way you need.

Let them know it’s OK to be emotional, and to ask questions

Your family love you and want to protect you, so it’s natural that some people may find it difficult to handle the news that you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Let them know it’s OK to show emotion – and if you want to show your emotions, that’s OK as well.

Let it out, have a good cry if you need to – sometimes once you’ve released the explosion of emotion you can think and talk more clearly afterwards…

Also let your family know that it’s fine to ask questions about your condition and prognosis. However, you may want to put down some ground rules; not all cancer patients feel comfortable discussing every aspect of their illness, especially when they’ve only recently been diagnosed. Your family should respect that there will be some topics you just aren’t ready to discuss openly at this stage.  

Think about practical ways they can help you

After the initial shock has worn off, most families and friends react with offers of help. Think about ways they can lend a hand, to make life easier for you during treatment and recovery. From going with you to your chemotherapy appointments to picking up some grocery shopping once a week or simply popping round for an hour or so every now and then to sit and talk, there are lots of little things that people can do for you, which will make a big difference.

Breaking your cancer diagnosis to your family

At the end of the day, it’s up to you who you share your cancer diagnosis with, and when and even if you tell them. Let family members and friends know, but only when you feel ready to share with them, and above all break the news in a way that makes you feel comfortable. 

If you are not confident telling family members on your own, ask your partner or another loved one to help you start the conversation. Alternatively, you can ask a professional like a counsellor or support group to help you talk to those around you.