How to Break the News of a Cancer Diagnosis

How to Break the News of a Cancer Diagnosis

Well, yet another friend has been diagnosed with f-bomb cancer. I swear, it is everywhere.

In addition to contending with the emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual issues that are inherent in a cancer diagnosis, there is also the issue of breaking the news to family and friends. “Breaking” is the operative word because a cancer diagnosis is the ultimate break.

There is so little control after a cancer diagnosis, but deciding if, how and when to tell people is your choice.

Yes, I said if. First things first: after a diagnosis, obligation goes by the wayside. There is no longer any shoulding. A friend of mine who last year was diagnosed with a nasty case of ovarian cancer decided that she didn’t want to tell her friends. …and because she had just moved to a new town, she didn’t. And you know what? That was the very best thing for her.

If you do decide to tell people, it is important to know that there  is no “right” way to deliver the news. I mean it’s cancer for goodness sakes. When it came time to telling people about my diagnosis, I decided to communicate via email because I wanted each person to hear about the diagnosis from me, in my own words, at the exact same moment (because it landed in every inbox at the same time).  Now, I know that it wasn’t the most “socially” acceptable thing to do, but it was what felt the most comfortable to me. What I know for sure is that each person has to do what feels the most comfortable (ha! as if…) for him or her.

Other people feel the need to talk about their diagnosis either by phone or in person. All well and fine, too. In fact, one Silver Lining of talking is that it can help problem solve or even bring up new questions to ask your health care team.

When it comes to disclosing your diagnosis, here are a few helpful hints:

  1. Decide if you want to communicate. You don’t have to.  Don’t be bullied. Truly.
  2. Make a list of people with whom you want to communicate. There were some people I told by phone, but the majority received an email.
  3. Talk with your children!  That is a MUST.  I have written extensively about talking with children.  You can read several of the posts here:
  4. Decide how much you want to share. Talking about your specific type of cancer and treatment options can be overwhelming and time consuming, so repeating it over and over can therefore be exhausting. Pace yourself.
  5. Write down bullet points of information so that your conversation stays on track.
  6. Accept help.  Though this was difficult for me, the one thing that I know with absolute certainty is that accepting for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  7. Appoint a communication ambassador (ideally not your spouse or partner).  This could be a friend who goes with you to appointments and is fully apprised of your plan of care (e.g., treatments) as well as your status.  This person can serve as a gatekeeper so that you or your immediate family are not contending with repeating stories over and over and over again.

Please remember that there is no “right” way to communicate.  Following your intuition is the best thing that you can do for your self, always and in all ways.

Do you all have any added helpful hints?  I’d love to hear about them.



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  1. says

    this is what im thinking….im a spouse. we are not telling anyone and we havent for the past few months, its a recurrence, and thought wed keep it on the down low and let everyone have their summer and not worry yet again about us.
    but now things are looking dire. i have no idea where to start. its like we’ve kept it quiet for so long now, im afraid that when the whole story comes out, some family will resent that we didnt share earlier. i feel like ive dug a hole and am having a difficult time getting out.
    i started to leave a a comment and make a joke :why dont YOU come and be my point of ocntact, you seem quite eloquent and knowledgeable.”
    but as i started writing, it became less funny.
    okay…gonna put on my big girl panties and get to writing some letters.

    thanks for writing

  2. Karen says

    I sent my family members and closest friends an email explaining what my symptoms were and how I got my diagnosis. I too didn’t want someone’s feelings hurt if they didn’t hear it from me, and I couldn’t talk to everyone. My husband also did some communicating with our close friends and family,the men’s side I guess.
    Then I explained about my cancer because it is pretty complex and researching it is overwhelming. I then outlined what my treatment protocol would be. I talked to my closest family and friends on the phone. Then I sent private messages and emails to my “2nd tier” friends. After a few weeks when the procedures were rolling in, I announced it on Facebook and acknowledged that it was awkward to say, hey everyone, I have cancer! I pretty much gave the drummed down version of the email that was sent out. I asked for prayers and support for me and for my husband and caretaker, BFF. I feel special and overwhelmed that so many people care so much and send love and prayers. I keep my Facebook friends to 100. Just those that I regularly see or talk to, otherwise I would have made up a group and not made it so public.

    • silverpen says

      Hi Karen,
      I did the EXACT same way! So glad you feel so loved and supported. Talk about a silver lining! Sending my very best wishes to you. Please stay in touch!