Telling People you have Cancer: How Tos & Tips 

Summary: Discussing your cancer diagnosis with others can be a very challenging, stressful event. Navigating your own feelings about your cancer is one thing but dealing with the unpredictable feelings of others is even more challenging. Knowing what to say or how to say it can feel complicated but taking the steps to openly and honestly share your cancer journey is important. Sharing honestly helps you to find your path to healing, while allowing others to easily adjust to your new life as well. Here you can read how to discuss your diagnosis with different people in your life.

After your initial diagnosis, you may require time to adjust to the new information and treatment plan before you share your news. Telling others that you have cancer is not an easy task. While you are dealing with your own emotions, you will have to cope with each person’s emotions you tell, as well. Depending on others’ reactions, this may add more stress into your life or cause some relationships to dwindle.

Most cancer patients come to terms with their diagnosis and announce their diagnosis to everyone they can. You are never required to tell anyone anything that you do not want to share about yourself. You might find that it is better to only tell those who will be a positive support in your life, like immediate family and close friends. You may also find those who did not know of your diagnosis right away are frustrated with you, leaving you unneeded feelings of guilt.

How to Prepare for this Talk

Before you sit down with your family and friends to discuss your diagnosis, note a few things. All people respond differently, some very intensely, especially if they have had any previous experience with cancer. Most patients who are diagnosed with cancer find that the family and friends who they thought would stick with them tend to disappear, whereas friends who were merely acquaintances come out of the woodwork and act as lifesaving, tremendous resources for help and support. Prepare yourself for any reaction, even a negative one. Some will not respond in the way that you think they will. Others find it easier to allow their family members to “spread the word” about your cancer.

Are there right words?

The hardest aspect of telling others is finding the right words to do so. Saying the words, “I have cancer,” is not as always as easy as it may seem. Uttering those words can trigger emotional release or make your disease even more overwhelmingly real. Saying these words when you are able is not only validating, but therapeutic and the admittance to yourself will allow you to begin to heal. When people hear the word cancer, they automatically think and believe the worst-case scenario. You may need to educate the people you tell about your specific type of cancer. If the people you are telling have outwardly directed fear and anxiety about your cancer, you may want to reevaluate your relationship until you are healed. Your healing is most important, and absorbing others’ bad emotions and negativity will not help with your healing.

How do I tell my spouse that I have cancer?

Your spouse and partner will most likely be the first person to find out you have cancer. They will likely help to be your caregiver during your treatment and times of need. It is important to be completely honest with your partner at all times during this journey, as they are going through a journey, too. Your partner can attend appointments with you, which will help to absorb the informational load you will receive with treatment. Having a partner that provides ultimate support, fighting your cancer becomes teamwork with a strong bond of togetherness, which will make you feel more empowered.

How do I tell my children that I have cancer?

Telling your children bad news is never easy, and the parental natural instinct to protect is always boldly strong. This might mean you tell them that you have cancer but leave out the scary details. Most all psychologists agree that this is not the best method and being honest and open is better for everyone in the long run. It is important to let your children know that you have cancer and to be honest about what cancer is. Do not assume that they automatically know what it means to have the disease or that they understand that the prognoses of different cancers can vary tremendously. Explain the physical process of how cancer develops, as well as what treatments you are going to have, how long you will get them, and what the side effects might be.

Some experts recommend delaying telling children until you are aware of the extent of your disease and what course of treatment you will be taking. Children understand best when they can see the whole picture, not just little pieces. Remember to be confident and let them come through in your tone and body language. Your optimism about beating cancer will reassure them. If you choose to wait, however, make sure that your child does not hear confusing tidbits as he or she overhears your phone conversations or your visits with others. Children who hear only part of the picture may imagine the worst-case scenario in their minds and try to cope with that scary future on their own.

It is also important for your children to know that your disease is not contagious and will not affect them physically. This may even be one of the first questions that they ask you. They are not being selfish. Children often hear about people catching a cold or the flu and naturally assume that it may be the same for cancer. How you explain it to your children and what information that you choose for them to know depends on their ages. If you have any questions about telling your children and what effect it may have, consult a child psychologist or pediatrician. He or she may be able to coach you on what to say and what not to say. If your child has some type of faith, drawing on that or involving a clergy member such as a pastor or rabbi can also be helpful, especially if you have a type of cancer that has a poor prognosis.

How do I tell my teenager that I have cancer?

The rocky teenage years are hard enough without the addition of cancer. Just as teens have fast raging hormones and emotions that travel from one extreme to the other in mere seconds, just about anything goes as to how they may react to the news of your cancer diagnosis. Perhaps the most difficult task for you will be to continue to provide steady guidance and direction. You may feel like you should be more permissive, as if you need to make up for the extra stress that your teen is facing, but do not. Imagine yourself as a guardrail in your child’s life. He or she may test the rules even more than usual, but he or she needs to know that the rules have not changed. There is great security in having clear guidelines when the rest of life does not seem to be following the rules. 

How do I tell my friends I have cancer?

Being open and honest is the best way to discuss your diagnosis with your friends. You can indeed pick and choose which details you chose to share with your friends but remember that these people make up pieces of your support system. Being straightforward about your fears and anxieties is essential for your path to healing.

How do I tell my employer that I have cancer?

There’s not necessarily a right or wrong time to let your employer know that you have cancer, but there are a few things that you should think about before you broach the subject. If you share your diagnosis, you are likely to get more support, both from your employer and your fellow employees, but everyone’s situation is different, and there are times when it is best to say nothing. If you anticipate any problems or have any concerns, the not-for-profit organization Cancer and Careers has excellent and detailed information that may help and has been an advocate for many people who have cancer as they work to balance their careers with the disease. 

How do I talk about my cancer?

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to discuss your cancer with those in your life. The most important thing to remember is that you share your diagnosis the way that feels right to you, in your own time. Do not allow people to pressure you in to sharing before you are ready or disclosing too much about personal aspects of your care. Perhaps the best piece of advice is to take a deep breath and be patient. People respond very differently to the diagnosis of cancer in a loved one, and it is often hard to predict how someone will respond. About the only thing that does not change with a diagnosis of cancer is change itself.

Sharing your diagnosis can be as hard as hearing the diagnosis yourself, but there are often silver linings. Certainly, nobody would opt to go through cancer, but amidst the heartache and the challenges, there are often rays of light, and sometimes those rays of light take the form of new or strengthened friendships. Research is now revealing that along with all of the emotional and physical scars of treatment, cancer changes people in positive ways, as well.

What should I say to my loved one who has been diagnosed with cancer?

If a loved one recently let you know that he or she has cancer, you may be feeling overwhelmed and helpless. While you want to provide support, you’re also coping with your own roller coaster of emotions. The pointers, below, may help you navigate these difficult days.

  • Know What to Say: This is one of the hardest first steps. The most important thing is simply to say something. It is surprising how often loved ones flee when they hear the “C” word. These are some examples of what to say to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer.
  • Be patient. It is impossible to know how you will act if you’re diagnosed with cancer until you have been there. Taking a moment to step into your loved one’s shoes may do wonders. Check out these thoughts from people who have cancer sharing how it really feels and what they wished their loved ones knew.
  • Take care of yourself. Many loved ones push themselves to exhaustion while caring for a friend or family member who has cancer. But you need to remember to take a little time to rest, eat well, and exercise so you have the energy to take care of someone else.

Hiding from your cancer diagnosis and not discussing it with others could be a negative sign. If you are having trouble discussing your cancer and treatment with your support system, reach out to your doctors for help. Cancer is an intimidating, overwhelming entity, and everyone handles this type of stress differently. Never feel bad about the way you choose to handle your cancer and discuss it with your family and friends.

Resources Used:



Reclaiming Intimacy

Cancer and Careers

Back to blog