How to Tell a Loved One You Have Cancer

First, you should think about how you feel. Second, decide what you’re comfortable sharing with others. Some cancer patients initially choose to talk with a mental health therapist, who can help you decide what you want to say and how you want to say it.

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One of the hardest parts of coping with cancer is telling your loved ones you have it. This is especially hard for people diagnosed with an incurable cancer such as mesothelioma.

But, once you tell others, they can support you and help you through it.

How do you say it? When is the right time? How do you discuss important end-of-life decisions?

There’s no one right way to tell people you have cancer. You might break the news differently with each person you tell. You might decide to ask a family member or friend to let others know about your diagnosis.

You may worry about how your family and friends will feel. This is normal. Encouraging them to express their feelings will help you both work through feelings together. Sometimes, people are unsure of what to say or they fear saying the wrong thing.

The first thing to do is figure out how you feel and what you’re comfortable sharing with others. Some people choose to discuss these topics with a mental health therapist first. A therapist can help you decide what you want to say and how you want to say it.

Your cancer center might have a mental health therapist or a social worker to help you decide how to tell others that you have mesothelioma. Whether you work with someone else or prepare on your own, there are ways to ready yourself to tell others about your health condition.

Preparing to Tell Others

Preparing for difficult conversations will help things to go smoothly. Take time to think about how you feel, who you want to tell, how you want to do it and when.

  1. Figure Out How You Feel

    A good first step is to figure out how you feel. Knowing how you feel allows you to process your emotions and determine the kind of support you need the most. This will help you know how to respond when people ask how they can help you.

    At first, feelings of grief about your mesothelioma diagnosis may seem paralyzing. You may feel depressed, confused, shocked or numb. Take time to see how you feel and then share your feelings with your closest loved ones to get the emotional support you need.

  2. Determining Who to Tell

    You get to decide who you tell. You are not obligated to tell everyone you know.

    It might be helpful to make a list of people you want to talk to in person. Then you can make another list of friends and acquaintances and have a friend or family member reach out to them with the news.

    If you are employed, think about who to tell at your work. You don’t have to tell co-workers, but you may have to tell human resources and your supervisor that you have a medical problem that may require time off.

  3. Consider When and Where

    Think about when and where you want to tell your loved ones. Breaking the news to loved ones will be hard for them to hear. You want to do it at a good time and in an appropriate place.

    You may want to reach out to say you want to talk about something difficult and ask if there is a preferred time and place to have such a conversation. They may have a location and time to suggest, and if not, you can have something in mind.

    You don’t have to tell people right away. You can take your time to process your feelings. Tell people when you are ready.

  4. Think About How You Want to Do It

    You may find it beneficial to journal or think about the way you want to tell others. It isn’t cold or wrong to simply be direct by leading with, “I have cancer.”

    Try different approaches until you learn what works for you. It’s OK if you get emotional or need to ask for emotional or practical support.

    You get to decide how much you want to share. You don’t have to provide every detail about your treatment or your diagnosis.

    Think about whom you are addressing and whether you need to modify your words. This is especially important when telling children or teens about cancer.

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How to Handle the Conversation

Talking about cancer isn’t easy. But you can get through it with the right tactics and ways of coping with the unexpected.

  • Learn Your Triggers

    Think about the topics that are too difficult for you to talk about yet. Once you’ve identified them, think about how you can respond if those topics come up unexpectedly.

    It is OK to tell people that you are not comfortable discussing certain topics. When such topics arise, you can say, “I don’t feel up to talking about that right now. Can we talk about something else?”

  • Tell Them What Will Help You

    Take time to think about the kind of help you need and are willing to receive. Make a list of practical things people can help you with such as running errands or house chores. Also make a list of ways people can emotionally support you such as calling to check on you or scheduling time to spend together.

  • Ask Them How They Feel

    Hearing that someone you love has cancer can provoke a range of feelings. Some people initially feel shock and numbness, while others may feel sad right away. Ask them to talk to you about how they feel so you can work through things together.

    Some people may not want to talk about their feelings or may not know how to express them. Sometimes people don’t know what to say in the wake of sad news.

    It’s OK if you don’t feel up to sharing your feelings. You can tell others, “Today I’m not up to talking about these things. Maybe we can talk about it later? I hope you can understand.”

  • Respond Politely When People Say Unhelpful Things

    Sometimes people say unhelpful things with the best of intentions. For example, some people may say things to try to cheer you up that upset you instead. People may ask you questions that you don’t want to answer or offer advice or treatment recommendations that you didn’t ask for.

    Thinking about how to respond politely to triggering topics will calm your fears and help you cope. You can simply say, “I’m not ready to talk about that yet, but I will let you know when I am ready.”

Say What Is Most Important to You

When you’re diagnosed with a terminal cancer like mesothelioma, it’s important to think about the meaningful things you want to tell your loved ones. You can also talk about end-of-life decisions.

Sharing Your Last Wishes

It’s important that your family knows your final wishes and how you’d like things to go near the end of your life.

It is natural for people to avoid these conversations because they are emotionally difficult to handle. These are important conversations to have and it is good to discuss end-of-life matters sooner rather than later.

It is wise to express your wishes with advance directives such as a living will or a medical power of attorney. To get assistance with these matters, ask your cancer center if they have a social worker or patient navigatoron staff. Hospice providers are also skilled at helping families with end-of-life decisions.

Saying Goodbye

Saying goodbye to your loved ones is difficult, but these are among the most important conversations you will have in your lifetime. These conversations may be painful, but there is beauty and strength in having this kind of meaningful dialogue with those you love the most.

If saying goodbye seems too difficult, find ways to let your family and friends know you love them. Recount fond memories together and tell them what your relationship meant to you.

Consider making a photo album or scrap book to honor the moments of your life that meant the most to you and your loved ones.

Telling those you love that you have mesothelioma won’t be easy. But, with the right emotional support and preparation, you can move through these conversations with grace and love.

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Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at Asbestos.com for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure. Read More

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Last Modified June 6, 2018
Sources
  1. American Cancer Society. (2016, April 28). Telling Others About Your Cancer.
    Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/understanding-your-diagnosis/talking-about-cancer/telling-others-about-your-cancer.html
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  5. UVA Cancer Center. (2016, June 1). How to Tell People You Have Cancer Your Way.
    Retrieved from: http://yourcenter.uvacancercenter.com/tell-people-cancer-way/
  6. Canadian Cancer Society. (n.d.). Telling family members and friends. Retrieved from: http://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-journey/talking-about-cancer/telling-family-members-and-friends/?region=on
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