Telling your family you have cancer or a terminal diagnosis may be one of the more difficult conversations you’ll ever have.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Steps for Telling Your Family You Have Cancer
- Tips for Telling Loved Ones About a Terminal Cancer Diagnosis
Your emotions are new and overwhelming, and you can expect your family members’ reactions to intensify your own fears as well.
Steps for Telling Your Family You Have Cancer
Receiving a cancer diagnosis can feel like you’re drinking from a firehose. There’s often a lot of information and many medical terms involved. Taking some time to absorb it all can help when it’s time to talk about your illness to others. You’ll be able to deliver the most accurate information and understand how you want to approach your illness. Here are some helpful steps to follow when sharing your news.
1. Check your feelings
Your emotions will be all over the place when you first discuss your diagnosis. It’s normal to feel devastated, overwhelmed, and unsure of how to proceed. You may feel like burying or ignoring your feelings, but doing this doesn’t make them go away. If you let them move through you, even the most intense emotions will come and go.
You might find it helpful to journal during the first few days and weeks of your diagnosis. Write down every feeling you experience and what's happening at that time. Journaling can help you identify and name your feelings more easily. You might find it helpful for settling your busy mind as well.
When you understand your own emotions, you can cope with other people’s reactions a little better. You’ll be less surprised at the wide range of feelings people have when they first hear the news.
2. Decide who to tell first
The first person you tell may be the hardest for you to talk to. It’s your first time talking about it, and you haven’t dealt with anyone’s reactions yet. Many people choose to tell a partner first unless the couple hears about the diagnosis together.
If you have children, plan on telling them early so they get the first message from you. Tell the people who mean the most to you first. You'll want their support as soon as possible — you wouldn't want them to hear the news from someone else.
You may choose to tell an employer before some relatives. Having this conversation right away will help you feel more clear about starting treatment and time away from your job. Once you tell other family, friends, or co-workers, the news will become more public and telling your story may get easier by that time.
3. Prepare yourself to talk
You will probably share your news with various family members at different times. This conversation will be tough for everyone, no matter when or where you have it. It can go more smoothly if you set it up to avoid interruptions or distractions, but don’t worry about finding the perfect moment. As you tell your story a few more times, you’ll feel more comfortable with your words.
Keep the focus on sharing this first piece of news and set up another time to talk about future steps. Or you might find that digging into the details makes you feel more prepared and confident. Have more details on hand in case you have a more in-depth conversation.
4. Be honest
You may feel like downplaying the news of your cancer diagnosis to your loved ones, giving them less to worry about. But now is not the time to sugarcoat the facts, even if you really want to. Give your loved ones a real idea of what to expect so they have time to adjust, especially when the news is bad.
They will understand and be less surprised by ups and downs if you tell them what you know early on. It’s okay not to know everything about your treatment or your recovery — and it’s impossible to predict, anyway.
You will need their support no matter what, and you won’t spare them any pain in the end if you skirt the truth now.
5. Talk to your partner
Some people have their partner with them when talking to their doctor about a potential cancer diagnosis. Others may wish to hear this news on their own. Your partner could be the easiest or hardest person to tell.
First, they will see your cancer up close and how it affects you. Second, your partner will struggle with the real possibility of losing you. However, your partner can also be a bedrock of support when you need it the most.
Living with cancer isn’t the same as living your normal life, and you’ll need to communicate well with each other about your needs and emotions. Talking to your partner about cancer can be heartbreaking at times, but this important person should want to be there for your best and worst moments.
Get weekly reminders to live life fully.
We'll send inspirational quotes directly to your inbox.
6. Decide how much privacy you want
Your privacy is important, and you’ll need to decide how public you want to be. There are pros and cons to being more private or more open. A delicate balance exists between feeling protected and creating unintended stress.
Pros of more privacy:
- You may feel like you don’t want cancer to define your life as long as you feel well.
- You may have toxic people in your life, and keeping it private longer may feel less stressful. Keeping it private means you won’t answer questions and endure people treating you differently.
- You live on your terms with less hassle and interference.
Cons of more privacy:
- Shielding your loved ones from pain and worry can create more stress later on, especially if your diagnosis becomes terminal.
- Your loved ones may feel unprepared and shocked when they realize you aren’t well or when you tell them more about your condition.
- You may also miss out on much-needed family support.
The right answer for you is a personal choice. Your doctor can guide you through this process and help you make the best decision for you and your family.
7. Talk to kids and teens
Talking to young people about cancer is different than discussing it with adults. These suggestions can help you start the conversation.
- Use plain language with real medical words. Avoid vague words like “boo-boo” or “sick” to describe your cancer.
- Assure them that you love them and will keep taking care of them.
- Be honest and don't mislead them or minimize the situation.
- Tell them they can't catch cancer from you.
- They may not know what to say at first, so they may not say anything right away.
- Encourage them to talk about their feelings and start by being open about yours.
- Tell them what will happen to your body during treatment. If your hair will fall out, or if you will appear sick, they will need to know that these changes are coming.
- A children's book about cancer may help you start this conversation with younger kids.
- Consult a child therapist or expert if you are unsure of what to say or if your child seems to struggle with your situation. Coping with cancer is a huge adjustment and some expert support may help your family.
8. Be ready for uncomfortable comments
Some of your loved ones may have an awkward or unhelpful reaction. Most people aren't ready to hear shocking news, so they may blurt something out or not say anything at all.
A friend may tell you to cheer up instead of listening to your fears. A relative may give you advice, share stories, or give their opinion on doctors and hospitals. Not everyone will be comfortable with your news, and this is completely normal. In most cases, people mean well but don’t think about what they’re saying.
Other people's reactions have nothing to do with you and what you need. Just be kind and change the topic or find a way to end the conversation politely.
9. Ask your loved ones what they are feeling
Hearing news about a cancer diagnosis can be shocking. Do you remember how you felt when your doctor first told you about your diagnosis? You probably felt a lot of mixed feelings, including sadness, fear, disbelief, anger, and maybe even determination.
Your loved ones may feel a mix of emotions at first. Ask them what they're feeling and let them know you're listening. They may be more worried about you than they let on, but encouraging them to open up will help them cope with the news.
10. Consider having a spokesperson for follow-up news
A cancer diagnosis can be very overwhelming. Keeping your loved ones informed can be time-consuming, especially when you are not feeling well.
Once you’ve made your announcement, people will want updates. You might find it helpful to pick a spokesperson to share news. This person can relay messages back and forth.
If you feel up to it, you can choose to respond personally. Know that you don’t have to do that job alone.
Tips for Telling Loved Ones About a Terminal Cancer Diagnosis
Hearing news about a terminal diagnosis is never easy. You may still be coming to terms with it yourself when you share it with others, and that’s OK. Here are some tips to help you and your loved ones get through the toughest moments.
If you’re at peace with your diagnosis, share this with your family
Knowing the outcome of your illness with certainty can be freeing. When you know your illness can’t be cured, you can choose to spend your time differently. You may also start viewing the world from a different viewpoint.
If a confirmed diagnosis brings you peace, share this with your loved ones. It may seem to go against the grain, but you can give them the support they need to cope with the news.
Don’t hide your terminal diagnosis from others
You may be tempted to keep this distressing news from your loved ones. Maybe you think it’s easier to spare them the extra heartache. Or perhaps you aren’t ready to absorb the finality of it yourself. But this can be a mistake.
Even if your intent is good, your loved ones may feel even more shocked or hurt that you kept this from them. Of course, people die suddenly from heart attacks and car accidents. They don’t have a chance to prepare with others before their death. But when you know you have time, sharing your news allows people to cope and connect with you. Extra conversations or visits can be meaningful for both you and your loved ones.
Sharing the news may be uncomfortable, but it’s a short-term price to pay. What you and your loved ones gain can more than make up for that.
Your emotions may not be what you expect
When you get to the moment where you share your news, your emotions may surprise you. Anger, sadness, or peacefulness may be part of the picture. Even if you can imagine how you’d react, the moment may look different when it comes. So be prepared for anything and accept whatever happens.
You’re grieving your own loss of life, and no emotional reaction is out of line. While you may react in ways you don’t expect, it’s all part of the process of grief, and every emotion has a place.
Tell your loved ones how they can help
People want to feel helpful, especially after hearing bad news about someone they love. Since you have the advantage of knowing your situation ahead of time, think of a few things they can do for you. This gives them something tangible to focus on and can be a comforting distraction from their painful feelings. Here are a few ideas to start with:
- Suggest easy ways to visit and communicate with you.
- Share practical ways they can help your family, like making meals or helping with transportation.
- Discuss any final wishes they could help you carry out.
Get Support for Your Cancer Diagnosis
Getting the courage to tell family members about your cancer can bring on anxiety. But once you have your first conversation, telling others can feel more comfortable. Talking to your loved ones can both inform them and help you share your feelings.
A cancer diagnosis can be tough to cope with, so if you ever feel like you need more support, consider talking with a counselor or therapist.
- “Talking to Kids and Teens about Cancer,” Simms/Mann Center UCLA, 2021. simmsmanncenter.ucla.edu