How to tell someone you love that you have cancer, according to people who have done it

ShutterstockIt’s never easy to break the news.

In October 2018, I got a stomach-turning email from a good friend of mine and the subject simply read “personal update.” It wasn’t until I opened up the email to find that my friend – who is a parent to two children, married, and runs their own business – had been diagnosed with cancer.

It’s never easy to receive an email like that, but it’s obviously even harder to be the person sending it.

Though it may feel like there’s no right way or time to deliver the information to those around you, here are 12 examples – given by cancer patients, survivors, and supporters – told to INSIDER that can help you break the news to the ones you love.

Of course, everyone’s journey with cancer and relationship with the loved ones can differ. These are simply a guide, but you should always do what feels comfortable for you and seek the guidance of your doctor and/or mental health professional for more.

Take your time

Telling someone that you love about your diagnosis is undoubtedly a difficult task. According to Lindsey A. Walker, CEO and lead publicist of Walker + Associates Media Group, LLC and cancer survivor, you don’t have to do it as quickly as you think. You should tell those you love at the pace that feels right for you.

“I broke the news by calling close family and friends and then because I am in business and didn’t know what to expect, I emailed and called some of my clients and made a status on Facebook letting everyone know,” Walker said.

“My advice in breaking the news would be to take your time. Don’t feel obligated to tell everyone right away. You, as the person being diagnosed, need time to process everything first including your feelings and thoughts. Once you’ve had time to process, then you can let everyone know in your own time and your own way.”

If you’re not ready to tell others, but feel that they should know, let a close family member do it for you

Licensed counselor Saffy Johnson, whose mother is currently in active treatment for Stage 4 cancer of the liver and colon, told INSIDER that after she received the news about her mother’s cancer, her aunt and cousin took on the task of telling the remainder of the family.

“My aunt, cousin and I had to carefully convey this news to other family members as we have a lot of older family members,” she said. “They were all hurt and concerned by it. My aunt and cousin did most of the heavy lifting by guarding my mum and I by talking to various family members. Of course, they called me and checked up to see how I was doing and they also called my mum.”

Holding hands couple relationshipiStockSometimes it’s OK to let someone else break the news.

Don’t feel obligated to tell everyone – even if they are family

Just because you love someone, that doesn’t mean you’re quite ready to tell them about your diagnosis just yet. Tracy Cuva, melanoma patient and Queens, New York Cycle for Survival participant, said that everyone doesn’t have to know all at once or even at all.

“Learning you have cancer is always devastating, but I never guessed that telling the people who love and want to protect you would be one of the toughest parts,” she told INSIDER. “Initially, I barfed the headline on my husband, siblings, parents, and close friends: ‘I have melanoma.'”

“Only upon finding how advanced the disease was did I start to curate information I shared and with whom I shared it. My children, 4, 2, and five months at the time of my diagnosis, still don’t know about my cancer at all and two years later, I have not disclosed my stage to any family member other than my husband. Ironically, it’s easier to tell friends and acquaintances the details so I maintain a website to keep people updated on the day-to-day and garner support.”

Be open and honest

Couple holding handsiStockTell them the truth.

Mary Stommel, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2017 and has been in active treatment since, said that one of the best ways to disclose the information to those you care about is to just be open and honest with them.

“I broke the news to my children that live in California and told them everything the oncologist said,” she said. “I didn’t feel the need to withhold any information or to downplay the situation. The more information you share, the better equipped your family members are for support and to get you through the treatments and day-to-day side effects.”

Remain yourself when breaking the news

Stommel also told INSIDER that one of the best things to do when talking to your family about something so sensitive is to stay true to your authentic self throughout the conversation.

“My family has always used humour to handle situations both good and bad,” she said. “We live to laugh. When I informed my sisters, I told them that I was going to be saving money on hair products and would be the fastest one ready since I wouldn’t have to worry about fixing my hair. When I called my brothers, who are both bald, I told them that people wouldn’t be able to tell us apart and we’d look like triplets. Laughter tends to open to door for more informative and productive conversations around one’s cancer.

“Continuing with the idea that laughter is good medicine, I wore costumes to all my chemotherapy treatments. It was good for my attitude and it made the other patients laugh. It is a long and painful journey and I couldn’t have gotten through it without the love and support of my family and friends and all the laughs we’ve shared along the journey.”

Take your loved ones with you to learn more

Though everyone may not have the option to bring their family with them to their doctor’s appointments, if you have that close support, Stommel suggests that you take advantage of it.

Woman waiting for doctoriStockLean on others for support.

“When I was told that I had cancer I was shocked and overwhelmed. My first reaction was a common one of fear initially,” she said. “When people hear the word ‘cancer,’ they automatically think of death. I wanted to get to a place of peace before I told anyone but that was unrealistic. I thought it best to be totally honest about the diagnosis and the course of treatment, so I decided to take my family with me to hear what the oncologist had to say.

“It’s better to have more people hear what is being said so that you can compare notes afterward. When you are in an emotional state, you tend to only hear bits and pieces of what is being said and you can’t remember it all.”

Keep it simple and light for those younger

Melissa Berry, a five-year triple negative breast cancer survivor and mother of two, said that even if your children may be old enough to understand what cancer is, they may not be old enough to process everything that comes with it. Still, you can and should put it in terms that they can understand.

“My daughters were 11 and 7 at the time of my diagnosis,” she said. “I kept it as simple and light as I could. I decided to share just the bare minimum with them, then answer any questions that they had. I told them that I had breast cancer, and that I was going to be OK, But that I was going to have to take medicine that will make my hair fall out. And, that their Mummy would be very tired and even a little sick some days. They also handled the news incredibly well. I’m very lucky to have such a supportive family.”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

When fashion stylist Brandi Murray‘s aunt was diagnosed with stage four metastasis colon cancer, she chose to keep it from her family because she didn’t feel right asking for help. Murray said that her biggest piece of advice is to let your loved ones help you.

People hugging hugVitali Vitello/ShutterstockPeople won’t judge you for being vulnerable.

“If you’re diagnosed with cancer, never let your friends, family or loved ones hurt silently because you are too prideful for them to see you experience a low,” she said. “My aunt chose not to divulge her health concerns to us – and even denied them to herself – when it was clear that she needed help. Once diagnosed, she denied people who loved her the ability to check in on her, call her or for us to even let them know it may have been close to the time to say goodbye. Never be ashamed of the hand life deals you and never be afraid to ask for help or support. Taking that ability from people hurts just as much as them going through it with you.

Remove all distractions when telling them

According to Dr. Adil Akhtar who is the chief for Division of Palliative & End of Life Care at Michigan Health Professionals as well as the director of Inpatient Clinical Services at Karmanos-McLaren Oakland Cancer Center in Michigan, whether you’re a doctor or the patient who has cancer, you should remove all distractions when relaying the information. By doing this, you’re able to efficiently answer any questions they may have.

Be as clear as possible

Although finding out your diagnosis may be hard to digest, explaining it again to those closest to you could be even harder. Not only because they will be hurt by the news, but also because they may not want to accept it or understand it.

“Look at the person and give the news clearly and unequivocally in simple language without difficult medical terms,” Dr. Akhtar said. “Then, pause so that they can process the information. Show support for their feelings through supportive phrases and physical contact, like holding hands or touching shoulders. Make sure they understand what you just told them. Be realistic, but always give hope because even if a cancer can’t be cured, it can be treated to control it.”

Remember that there is no perfect time to tell them

While you may try to rehearse and plan for the perfect way to let everyone know what’s going on in your life, the truth is, there is never an optimal time to break the news. Influencer Amanda Lauren, whose mum was diagnosed with cancer in 2017, echoed that point.

“It was my niece’s second bat mitzvah when I found out,” she said. “I live across the country and was coming in for 48 hours. Near the end of the party, my mum pulls me aside near the kitchen at the temple. She sat me down to tell me what is going on and it just felt like a lot. A year and a half before this, she was hit by car – six months before my wedding – leaving her face changed forever. She told me that she was going to be fine. There was no good time to tell me, but she didn’t want to tell me on the phone. So ultimately, there was not a great time to break the news because I was going to be hurt either way.”

For more information and helpful advice, you can visit the American Cancer Society’s website.

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