How to Tell Friends and Family Members About a Difficult Diagnosis

Break the news to others.

Sharing your illness with friends, family, and acquaintances can be as difficult as getting the news yourself in the first place. “Make sure that you have a correct diagnosis before you tell people,” cautions Steven Petrow, a 32-year cancer survivor and the former Medical Manners columnist for EverydayHealth.com, who experienced misdiagnosis himself. “Then take a deep breath, because telling other people makes it real.”

1

Tell Your Nearest and Dearest Face-to-Face

doctor-medical-book-diagnosis
Photo by Gracia Lam

In person or by video call is best, says Petrow. It might help to practice a short script beforehand and ease in with a preface: “There’s something going on in my life that I need to talk to you about.” Even with this planning, “you might end up saying, ‘Hi, I have cancer’ and bursting into tears,” says Petrow. “No judgment. We’re all human, and you haven’t done this before.” If you’re too upset, ask a spouse or a sibling to share the news with those who need to know immediately, then follow up personally when you are ready. “If you want others to keep the news confidential, be sure to spell that out clearly,” says Petrow. That way, you won’t be outed with a heartfelt Facebook comment.

2

Talk With Your Kids, Now 

“It’s a normal and natural reaction for a parent to want to shield a child,” says Meredith Cooper, the executive director at Wonders & Worries, an organization that provides support to children whose parents are facing chronic or serious illnesses. “But to establish trust, you want to provide honest information at the child’s level.” Cooper suggests sharing the news with your kids as soon as you know. “Kids as young as two will have picked up on a shift in the house—closed doors, the phone ringing, parents’ nonverbal expressions,” she says. If you don’t address this, kids may think they’ve done something wrong. Use the correct name of the illness, tell them in simple terms what the treatment plan is, and—crucially—explain how they will be taken care of through these changes. (“Nana will bring you to school and soccer practice.”) Plan to revisit the topic often, so kids know it is safe to discuss. (“I’m going to the doctor tomorrow. Are there any questions you’d like me to ask?”)

3

Use Your Judgment With Friends and Acquaintances

Neighbors, book-club members, the nice mom from your kid’s class: Does everyone deserve the lowdown? “In our TMI culture, there’s a rush to disclose everything,” says Petrow. “But you don’t have to.” If you do want to share, steel yourself for some not-always-consoling reactions. You may have to comfort them. Or they might blurt out, “My neighbor had that, and she died/went to Mexico to see this fantastic herbalist!” Have a go-to response ready, says Gary McClain, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City and the author of After the Diagnosis: How Patients React and How to Help Them Cope: “I’ll keep that in mind.” Or, more bluntly, “I’m a little overwhelmed right now, but I’ll let you know if I need more information.”



4

Alert Your Employer—With Caution

Even if you consider your coworkers a second family, proceed carefully. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, you should be accommodated. An unethical employer, however, might fire you for a trumped-up reason once you disclose your condition. Petrow suggests sussing out how coworkers’ illnesses have been handled in the past. Were the bosses understanding about absences? Were coworkers supportive of the extra load they had to carry? If you see red flags, you may want to consult a lawyer before proceeding (better safe than sorry). Even if the environment seems supportive, it might be smart to wait until you have a treatment plan in place so you can give your employer concrete details. And be sure to tell your boss first (or HR if your company has a formal policy in place). “You don’t want your coworkers to be the ones that deliver your news,” says Petrow.

5

Post to Social Media When (and If) You’re Ready

Doing a Facebook reveal can produce an outpouring of support from everyone you know. But while “posting can be an act of real bravery,” says Petrow, once the news is up, it can be seen and shared—not just with your cheering section but also with everyone from future employers to college admissions offices. Once you do let everyone know, many will crave updates on your condition. Patty Ribera, a professional organizer, a former nurse, and the founder of Critical Organizing, which provides medical, financial, and estate organizational help, recommends CaringBridge.org, a website that lets you or a loved one post news as needed: “That way, you don’t have to get home from the doctor exhausted and think, I have to call Uncle Joe and cousin Billy.” (Similar sites include CarePages.com and PostHope.org.)