We’ve written about how to stay strong in the face of a breast cancer diagnosis. But you won’t be going through it alone—so how do you break the news to your friends and family?
First, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s no one right way to tell your friends and family about your cancer. Every person is different and every relationship you have is different. The purpose of this guide is to help prepare you with the talking points you will likely need to bring to those conversations.
Telling Your Children
Aside from your spouse or partner, your diagnosis affects no one more than your children. When it comes to telling your children about your cancer diagnosis, the one rule of thumb is: share what you know. No matter their age, they will always want to know what’s going on with Mom. Here are some tips for telling your children.
Be honest, though tailor your response to each child so it’s age-appropriate. For example, young children probably don’t need to know the details, but all children need to know what the coming months and years will look like. Be sure not to sugarcoat your diagnosis. Don’t try to make it sound better than it actually is. Children are very perceptive. If your child is not coping well with the news, you can always seek the advice of a child psychologist or family therapist.
Allow your children to prepare for the journey ahead based on realistic expectations. If you’re going to have surgery, tell them about it. Try to anticipate their questions, which are often basic concerns. When is the surgery going to happen? How long will it take for you to recover? Are you going to die?
If your treatment will cause side effects such as nausea, tell them ahead of time, so they’re not worried when they see you getting sick after a trip to the doctor.
And keep in mind that a sudden change in a parent’s physical appearance can cause anxiety in children. If your treatment will result in physical side effects like weight loss, let them know in advance. It provides some comfort to children to know that Mom already knew this was going to happen.
As a parent, you know that children thrive when they have structure, and your cancer diagnosis is no different. There’s a certain element that’s unknown, and this can cause anxiety in children, but there are also things that are known. Your doctor’s appointments, treatment schedules, etc. can all be placed on a calendar—perhaps even a shared family calendar—for them to see and follow along.
By integrating your treatment schedule into the normal routine of daily life, you’re also helping to alleviate some of that anxiety within your children. This way, they know that on Monday and Wednesday mornings, Mom is going to see a doctor who is helping her get better.
Telling Your Adult Children
If your children are older (teens or adults), they will almost certainly want an opportunity to do research as a means of alleviating their own anxiety. They may be fully grown, but they are still your children, so the rule remains the same: share what you know.
Tell them who your doctor is, who your surgeon is, what their track record is with this type of surgery. You can even curate some reading for them to do. Compile a list of articles explaining your condition and stage and, while you’re having the conversation with them, ensure them that you will email them your list of articles immediately after.
By pointing them to research and resources, you can show that you also have a thorough understanding of your own condition and can answer any questions they may have.
A disclaimer: it’s ironic, but true, that sometimes researching to alleviate anxiety can have the opposite effect and actually cause anxiety. This is true of your family researching themselves into an anxious frenzy, or you doing the same. Practice self-care and know when to stop researching. If you find it hurting more than helping, it’s time to log off of WebMD.
Telling Your Friends and Family
Think of your “inner circle” as the family and friends closest to you. Create a list of the conversations you absolutely must have in-person or over the phone. These conversations can be highly emotional, but they’re also some of the most important because these are the people who will be your support system throughout your treatment and recovery.
In having these conversations, you will be witnessing your closest loved ones process the news. It may not be easy watching them grapple with their grief, and you may find yourself acting as a pillar of support for them—rather than the other way around—during this conversation.
Because of this, you might consider writing a script or a list of talking points for your conversation beforehand. There are a few reasons for this. First, imagining how each person will react to the news can allow you time to process your own feelings ahead of time and make it easier for you to remain calm during your conversations with them. Second, studies have shown that putting your feelings into words can produce therapeutic effects on the brain.
That said, people are people, and conversations will never go as planned. Your “script” doesn’t need to sound rehearsed or robotic. Allow the exchange to flow organically and wander from your “script” but if the person asks a question for which you’ve already written a thoughtful response, you’ll thank yourself later.
One thing you should include in your script: “How do you feel?” Help the person process and accept the news by asking this simple question. And be ready to accept that some people may not have an answer right away, while others may open up a floodgate of emotions.
You may want to be personally responsible for telling the people closest to you about your cancer diagnosis, but what about those people who aren’t in your “inner circle”—neighbors, colleagues, not-so-close friends, second cousins, and so forth? If you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with these conversations, consider appointing a spokesperson or spokespersons to deliver the news on your behalf.
Some people find it helpful to assign this task to a spouse, partner, adult child, or another close ally. By doing so, you’ve removed a number of difficult conversations off your plate, and the next time you hear from these people, you will be met with well-wishes rather than their immediate response to the news.