Coping with Cancer

How to Share (Or Not Share) a Cancer Diagnosis

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Learning you have cancer is a life-changing event. It’s scary, painful, and both physically and emotionally demanding.

Once you come to terms with your cancer diagnosis, one of the many things you have to think about is whether to tell others – and how to go about it. The way you tell your best friend might not be the same way you break the news to your small children or casual acquaintances – so how do you do it? When is the appropriate time and what details do you share?

Michael Ryan, Psy.D., a psychologist at Henry Ford Health System who has worked with cancer patients and their families, provides advice on how to tell (or not tell) the people in your life about your diagnosis.

To tell or not to tell?
From navigating appointments to dealing with the everyday frustrations of cancer treatment, having someone in your corner to help and support you throughout your cancer treatment can help you to focus on yourself and your recovery. Even just one person to confide in and rely on can make a large difference.

“In general, I would always recommend for people to share their diagnosis – cancer is not something to go through alone,” Dr. Ryan says. “My hope for people in this situation is that they have a strong support network – and that could be just one or two people.”

On the reverse, having too much support can be counterproductive – especially when the people in your life want to help but don’t know the best ways to do so.

In these situations, it’s necessary to either speak up or have someone you trust do the talking. Explain what you need from the people in your life – they often want to support you as much as possible. By giving them specific instructions, such as running an errand or putting together a care package of items you could use, they can feel better about the help they can offer and it alleviates unnecessary stress from your life.

Sharing 101
Breaking the news of your diagnosis is not a simple conversation. It can be awkward to start, and then get messy and emotional. But it’s a conversation most people have with at least their close family and friends.

The best way to share is in person or over the phone, Dr. Ryan says. Sharing hard-hitting news via email or text is likely to not go over well and leave people in a state of panic and confusion.

If you have a lot of people to tell, one way to get the news out is to designate a spokesperson – your caregiver or another close person in your life who can reach out to extended family and friends on your behalf. Another way to share is through social media, Dr. Ryan says.

“One way to keep the people in your life updated about your condition is to start a Facebook page dedicated to this topic where you (or someone close to you) posts updates and other news related to you,” she says. “This can also be a place for your support network to post thoughts of love and encouragement.”

One of the issues many people face when sharing their cancer diagnosis is not wanting to feel like a burden – or feeling like they have to provide the emotional support to their loved ones who are struggling to cope with the news.

“In order to reduce burden on you as the patient, it’s important to communicate what your needs are,” Dr. Ryan says. “If you have a family member who falls apart every time he or she sees you, you need to be honest with that person. Say something like, ‘I need you to be here for my emotional support, and if you can’t, I need you to get the help you need.’”

Cancer can be a tough disease to hide – especially during the midst of treatment. Coworkers, neighbors and even people at the gym will most likely start to notice your symptoms, and will probably be curious.

In the end, it’s up to you if you want to share. But telling those outside of your immediate circle could strengthen your support group, and even add some external support to your caregivers.

“If you are truly uncomfortable and don’t want to get into too many details, you need to have a plan for if you are confronted with questions,” Dr. Ryan says. “You can explain to people that, if there is information you want to share, that person will be the first to know. Most people understand going through cancer treatment is a sensitive time and just want to help.”

Whether you are going through cancer treatment or serve a loved one as a caregiver, there are resources to help you. Visit henryford.com/cancer to learn more.

Dr. Michael Ryan is a psychologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

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