Difficult Conversations: What to Expect When You Share the News of Your Diagnosis

You just found out that you have cancer. You’re trying to wrap your brain around the devastating news you have just received.
February 2020 Part 1 of 4 - Breast Cancer Special Issue Series
Carolyn Byrd, RN-BSN, CBCN

You just found out that you have cancer. You’re trying to wrap your brain around the devastating news you have just received. Your entire life seemingly flashes before your eyes. Thoughts of your family and friends’ reactions to the news begin to crowd your brain. Your emotions are all over the place, and you haven’t had time to process the news. This is a normal response. Allow yourself time and space before sharing the news. Only you know when it’s time to share. It is impor­tant to know the facts before you share with extended family and friends. You may get a lot of questions that you are unable to answer, causing more emotional turmoil. If you are unable to deliver the news, you can appoint someone to speak on your behalf. After sharing your diagnosis, you should expect many different emotions from others. People cope with bad news in different ways.

If your spouse or significant other wasn’t present when you received your diagnosis, you may need to inform them right away. More than likely they will be your greatest support throughout your cancer journey. They can assist you in making decisions about your care. If at all possible, keep them in the loop of what is going on because they are concerned about your health and well-being. Remember that this diagnosis will affect your personal relationship with your spouse or significant other, so don’t shut them out. Normally they are there to assist you in making decisions about your care.

Telling younger children may be a little challenging. It is important to take the child’s age into consideration when having this conversation. As parents, it is natural for us to protect our children. Children are very smart and can sense when something is wrong. Be truthful with them and assure them that you will be getting the care that you need. Hopefully this will alleviate some of their fears and worry. Allow them time to process this information and ask questions. They may not know how to deal with your diagnosis. Look for little clues that they are having difficulty coping. This may include a decline in their schoolwork, decreased interest in other activities, or just wanting to be with you all the time. Children respond in many different ways when they are concerned about the well-being of their parent.

Teenage children and young adults have probably had friends who had to deal with a cancer diagnosis. They may have more knowledge because of news feeds and other social media outlets that discuss cancer. This knowledge may cause them to ask more appropriate questions that you may not have the answers to. Again, be honest and up front with them. They may not know how to appropriately express their emotions; therefore, keep that line of communication open. Teens and young adults have their own set of challenges that they deal with on a daily basis. They may need to be pointed in the direction of some appropriate resources to help them cope, which may include support groups or professional counseling.

When informing your family and friends about your cancer diagnosis, be sure that you are ready to have that conversation. Remember there is no rush. Make sure it’s on your timetable; no one else’s. Try not to be disappointed if you do not get the response that you expected or hoped for. Some may have a lot to say about your diagnosis, and others may not know what to say. Recognize that everyone receives and processes this news in different ways. It is important to embrace your circle of family and friends who are on the journey with you. You may find that many people will volunteer to help with cooking, cleaning, childcare, running errands, or whatever else you need assistance with. This is the time to accept help if you need it, because there may be days that you may not feel well enough to perform some of these responsibilities. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help.

Notifying coworkers can sometimes be more daunting. You can decide to share only with your immediate supervisor, or you might decide to share your diagnosis with your coworkers. If you decide to inform your coworkers, you may want to consult with your supervisor regarding the best form of communication—e-mail, group meeting, or an appointed individual to deliver the news. It is important to keep your supervisor informed if you are unable to carry out your work duties. You may want to reach out to your human resources department to learn about possible resources available to you.

Remember, there is no right or wrong way to share this news with others. You have total control on how and when these conversations take place. Remember that the best decision you make is your own.

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Last modified: February 25, 2020

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