It’s understandable to feel nervous about telling your family and friends that you have breast cancer.
“Sharing bad news is hard,” says Susan Brown, a registered nurse and senior director of education and patient support at Susan G. Komen. “You may expect your loved ones to be upset, frightened, or feel helpless, and you may want to protect them.”
But talking about what you’re going through lets your loved ones support you. It can also help you feel less alone.
When you decide you’re ready to share, here’s what may help.
When and how you tell your loved ones is up to you. Many people choose to tell their partner or spouse first, followed by close family members and friends.
You might start off with, “This is going to be difficult, but I need to tell you something.” Or, if they know you’ve had tests, you could say that your doctor has found out what’s wrong.
If you don’t want to give the news in person, you can tell others over the phone, video chat, email, text, or social media. “Think about what you’re going to say in advance and how you’ll respond to the reactions and questions they may have,” Brown says.
Try not to pressure yourself to put on a happy or 100% confident face. It’s OK to be honest about how you feel.
Your loved ones may want to know about the type of cancer, your treatment plan, and how well your doctor thinks you’ll respond. If the cancer’s in an early stage, you may feel more open about sharing this info. If the cancer is advanced, your doctor, a trained counselor, or a support group can help you decide what to tell others.
Set boundaries that feel right to you. If talking about your diagnosis leaves you feeling drained, space out how often you tell others. You can also ask someone you trust to share the news for you.
There’s no “right” way to tell your kids, says Marisa C. Weiss, MD, chief medical officer and founder of Breastcancer.org. The words you choose will depend on their age.
Be honest and direct with older kids and teenagers. “It shows that you care about them and that you respect their intelligence and capacity to handle life,” Weiss says.
For younger kids, explain the cancer in terms they can grasp.
When Elizabeth Mover of Peabody, MA, a Massachusetts state leader for the Young Survival Coalition, learned she had stage II cancer, her two sons were in kindergarten and first grade.
“Both my boys are Lego lovers, and I used the analogy of your body being millions and millions of Legos (cells), and there was one Lego (cell) that was not put in correctly and didn’t fit (cancer),” Mover says.
“I needed surgery to make sure that [it] was removed. They both looked at me and said ‘OK.’ I was shocked. They weren’t sad or scared, and they both started talking about something else.”
If you have a very young child, saying that you have a “bad lump” that needs to be removed might be all they need to hear. You could also show them on a doll, draw a picture, or read a picture book about cancer.
Think about telling your child’s caregiver, teacher, or counselor, too. They can let you know how your child manages the news and help support them.
Once you share your diagnosis, be ready with ideas when people to ask, “What can I do?” “Your friends and family will want to show they care,” says Jean Sachs, CEO of Living Beyond Breast Cancer, a nonprofit group.
Be honest about ways that you may need support. If you feel awkward asking in person, make a list on a website like CaringBridge.
Jamie LaScala, of Wilmington, DE, says she had to rally herself to share that she had stage III breast cancer. She’s glad she did.
“I am so grateful for the support I received. … From meals to accompanying me to appointments, I had wonderful support. Our family was definitely lifted up emotionally,” LaScala says.
As nerve-wracking as it may feel to share your diagnosis, try not to worry about getting it “right.” Take it one step at a time, and do the best you can. And be sure to take care of yourself along the way.
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