Breast cancer: How do I tell my family and friends?
Telling your loved ones that you have cancer can be hard. Here are some tips to help start the conversation.
The diagnosis of breast cancer is a shock that needs to be absorbed. Telling partners, friends and especially children about the disease is an additional challenge for many women. We have put together some tips that can help you talk with your loved ones about the condition and its consequences.
The relationships we have with other people vary from person to person, and there is no universal ‘right way’ to tell people you are close to that you have breast cancer. The following tips might help you decide on the best way for you.
Ideas for letting people know your diagnosis of breast cancer
- Think about how you want to share your 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 people in advance that you want to talk to them and, if necessary, prepare them for bad news. That way, they can cope better with the conversation.
- Choose a place for the talk that feels best for you. For some it may be in their own home; others may need more distance – for example, it can be easier to talk 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 share the upcoming conversation with you.
- Talk about the facts first. Some people find it helps to talk about practical things to get the conversation going. This can make it easier to talk about feelings afterwards.
Things to consider when talking to your partner
For many women, their partner is an important emotional support, although providing this support can sometimes be stressful for your partner. That’s why it can help both of you if you involve them in your medical decisions from the beginning, process your diagnosis together and share your thoughts and feelings. During your treatment you might also want to talk to them about issues such as your how your body feels or what you need in relation to intimacy and sexuality. This is not always easy, but it can help to find solutions together and to prepare for the changes ahead.
Things to consider when talking to your parents
Parents often find it especially hard when they learn that their child is ill, no matter what their age. You know your parents better than anyone: it can help to tell both of them together about your diagnosis so that they can support each other, or if you are closer to one parent you might want to share it with them first. It can also help to have your siblings or other family members with you when you break the news.
Things to consider when talking to friends
First, think about who you want to share your diagnosis and experiences with. Who do you want to tell personally and who can be told by someone else? It can be helpful to treat the illness as openly and honestly as possible with friends. But it can also be good to allow yourself areas of protection, parts of your life where the disease does not matter, for example, with neighbours or casual acquaintances.
How to keep communicating while you are having treatment for breast cancer
Don’t expect too much from people. Nobody knows what you are thinking, your worries and what you need unless you tell them – so let them know as clearly as you can and don’t be afraid to set boundaries with people. If the well-meaning advice of your best friend or family member is too much for you, tell them. Equally, tell them when you want to share your worries.
Whether it’s face-to-face conversation, telephone or email, keep the communication channels with your support system open. That way they can be there for you when required. Equally, life goes on. If you are feeling overwhelmed, tell them when you need a break from talking about it.
Things to consider when talking to your children
What and how much you tell your children about your breast cancer also depends on how old they are. The preparation for a conversation with a three-year-old will naturally be different from that for a 16-year-old who is in the middle of puberty. Here are a few approaches:
Ideas for telling your children about your breast cancer diagnosis
- Prepare and think about how to explain your breast cancer in a simple way that they can understand. The type of words you use will depend on the age of the child. For younger children, rather than saying ‘tumour’ you could describe it as ‘a lump in my chest’.
- Use the term ‘cancer’ and tell them how it will be treated. This takes the fear out of the word and makes it something manageable. (Decide how you’re going to describe ‘cancer’ ahead of the conversation.)
- Think about where you want to tell them and who you want with you. It may help to have your partner or other family members with you.
- Be prepared for your child to ask directly, ‘Mum, are you going to die?’ You can explain that you are having treatment to get rid of the 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 just need time to process it. You can let them know that they can ask you questions any time.
- Be open. Even small children usually 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 the cancer and that it is not contagious, as this can be a worry particularly for those who are under 10 years old. If your children are older, openness can be even more important. Teenagers tend to search the internet for answers, and it can help them to know that you are open to discussing their worries with them.
Ideas on how to keep communicating with your children while you are having treatment for breast cancer
- Tell your children about your day. For example, tell them about the doctor’s appointment you have just had or other patients you’ve met who also have children. In this way, your child will realise that your condition is not a taboo subject, that other mothers feel the same way, and that they can talk to you at any time about your breast cancer.
- 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 you will need a treatment that may cause you to lose your hair in your first conversation with them about cancer. When the time comes, however, it may be advisable to prepare your children for it beforehand.
- Spend ‘cancer-free’ time with your children. Normal, everyday rituals, affection and family activities can give them peace of mind and show them that life goes on.
The following websites have more information on talking to your children about cancer:
The Macmillan Cancer Support page “Explaining cancer to children and teenagers” also has a section on explaining cancer to children with learning difficulties.