Breast cancer: How do I tell my family and friends?
Telling family about breast cancer can be hard. Here are some tips to help start the conversation
A diagnosis of breast cancer can be a traumatic shock that takes time to deal with. Telling family, friends and especially children about breast cancer presents an added challenge for many women. We have put together the following tips on how to tell family and others about your breast cancer and its consequences.
Our relationships with family, friends and partners vary from person to person. There is no one “right way” to tell people that you have breast cancer. But keep in mind that sometimes the one thing you can control is deciding who to tell and how to tell them. The following tips are suggestions to help you tell family and friends in a way that’s right for you.
Approaches to telling family and friends
- Often people don’t talk about their breast cancer because they haven’t made sense of it themselves. So give some thought to how to tell family about your breast cancer diagnosis and how you feel. It can help to prepare the words you want to use and what exactly you want to say. The better you can explain what’s going on for you, the more your family and friends can understand and support you.
- Tell friends and family in advance that you want to talk to them and, if necessary, prepare them for bad news. This will give them a better chance to cope with the conversation.
- Think about where and how you want to talk to your family or friends. Choose a place that feels best for you. It could be at home, or even while taking a walk.
- Ask for help if you need it. If you’ve already told your partner or your best friend about the diagnosis, you can ask them to be there you when you talk to your family.
- Talk about the facts first. Some people find that it helps to talk about practical things to get the conversation going. Discussing facts can make it easier to talk about feelings afterwards.
When talking with your partner
Many women depend on their partner for emotional support. Yet they often worry that talking about breast cancer will be a burden for their partner. If that’s the case for you, it could help you both if you involved them in your medical decisions from the beginning. You could then process your diagnosis, and share your thoughts and feelings together. During treatment, you might also want to talk about issues such as your how your body feels or what you need in terms of intimacy and sex. This isn’t always easy, but it can help you find solutions together and prepare for changes going forward, such as having a mastectomy.
When talking to your parents
Parents find it particularly hard when they learn that their child is ill, no matter what their age. There are no set rules for how to tell parents. You may want tell both parents at the same time about the disease so they can support each other. If you are closer to one parent, you may feel more comfortable sharing your diagnosis with them first. For many families, it helps to have siblings or other family members together when breaking the news.
When talking to friends
First, think about whom you want to share your diagnosis and experiences with. Who do you want to tell personally? Who can be informed by someone else? It can be helpful to talk about your illness as openly and honestly as possible with friends. But it is okay to set limits. It is perfectly understandable if you want to keep your illness private, especially among colleagues at work where relationships are less personal.
Communicating while undergoing treatment for breast cancer
- Don’t expect too much from family and friends. They can’t know what you are thinking, worrying about or what you need unless you tell them. So if there is something you want them to know, tell them. Share your worries when it is right for you. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to set boundaries with people. If well-meaning advice from a friend or family member is too much, tell them.
- Whether it’s through face-to-face conversations, the telephone or email, keep your channels of communication open with your support network. That way they can be there for you when you need them. Ultimately, life goes on. If you are feeling overwhelmed, let people know when you need a break from talking about your illness.
When talking to your children
What and how much you tell your children about your breast cancer depends on how old they are. Preparing for a conversation with a three-year-old boy will naturally be different than talking to a 16-year-old in the middle of puberty. Here are a few approaches:
Telling your children about your breast cancer diagnosis
- Think about how to explain your breast cancer in a way that is as simple as possible to help a child understand. The words you use will depend on the age of the child. For instance, when talking to a younger child, rather than saying “tumor” you could describe it as “a lump in my breast”.
- Use the term “cancer” and tell them how you will be treated. This takes the fear out of the word cancer and makes it easier to tolerate.
- Consider where you want to tell them and who you want to be with you. It may help having your partner or other family members with you.
- Be prepared for your child to ask, “Mom, are you going to die?” You can explain that you are having treatment to get rid of cancer so that you can get better.
- Don’t worry if your child doesn’t ask questions straight away. They may be scared and not want to bother you or may need time to process it. Let them know that they can ask you questions at any time.
- Be open. Even small children notice when something is wrong in the family. An open conversation can protect children from unknown fears. If you have young children, reassure them that they did not cause cancer and that it is not contagious. This can be a worry for children under ten years old. An open dialogue can be even more constructive for older children. Teenagers tend to search the internet for answers, so it is good for them to know that you want to talk about their worries and questions.
Communicating with your children while undergoing treatment
- Tell your children about your day. For example, tell them about the doctor’s appointment you have just had or other patients with children whom you have met. In this way, your child will understand that your condition is not a taboo, that other mothers feel the same way, and that they can talk to you at any time about the “cancer in your breast.”
- Take it step-by-step. For example, don’t explain the entire course of treatment from the very beginning. You don’t need to mention that your treatment may cause you to lose your hair in your first conversation about your cancer. When the time does come, it may be advisable to prepare your children for it beforehand.
- Spend “cancer-free” time with your children. Regular, everyday rituals, affection and family activities can give them peace of mind and show them that life goes on.
You can find more information about talking to your children about cancer on the following websites:
Kids Connected, a website dedicated to friendship, understanding, education and support for kids and teens who have a parent with cancer
The American Cancer Society page “Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer” https://www.cancer.org/treatment/children-and-cancer/when-a-family-member-has-cancer/dealing-with-treatment.html