After your diagnosis, it can take some time to absorb and process the news. Eventually, you’ll have to decide when — and how — to tell the people you care about that you have metastatic breast cancer.
Some people are ready to divulge their diagnosis sooner than others. Don’t rush into the reveal, though. Make sure you wait until you’re fully ready.
Then, decide who you want to tell. You might start with those closest to you, like your partner or spouse, parents, and children. Work your way to your good friends. Finally, if you’re comfortable, tell co-workers and acquaintances.
As you contemplate how to approach each conversation, figure out how much you want to share. Consider your audience, too. The way you tell your partner will likely be different from the way you explain cancer to a child.
Before you embark on this conversation, have a discussion with your doctor. It’ll be easier to tell your friends and family when you already have a treatment plan in place.
Here are some guidelines on how to tell the people in your life that you have metastatic breast cancer.
How to tell your partner or spouse
Good communication is essential to any healthy relationship. Regardless of whether you’re discussing money concerns, sex, or your health, it’s important to talk honestly and openly with each other. It’s also critical that you listen closely.
Remember that your partner will likely be as overwhelmed and frightened by the news of your cancer as you were. Give them time to adjust.
Let them know what you need during this time. If you want your partner to be an active participant in your treatment, tell them so. If you’d prefer to take care of everything yourself, make that clear.
Also, talk to your partner about what they need. They may be concerned about your ability to handle your end of the household responsibilities. Try to figure out solutions together, asking for help in areas like cooking or grocery shopping that you know you won’t be able to handle, while also respecting your partner’s needs.
If possible, let your spouse come with you to a doctor’s appointment. Learning more about your cancer and its treatments will help them better understand what lies ahead.
Schedule time each week for the two of you to spend time together and just talk. You should feel comfortable expressing whatever emotions arise — from anger to frustration. If your partner isn’t supportive or can’t handle your diagnosis, consider meeting with a couples’ counselor or therapist.
How to tell your parents
Nothing is more devastating to a parent than learning their child is sick. Telling your parents about your diagnosis may be difficult, but it’s a necessary conversation to have.
Plan the talk for a time when you know you won’t be interrupted. You might want to practice having the discussion ahead of time with your partner or a sibling.
Be clear about how you feel and what you need from your parents. Pause every now and then to confirm that they’re clear on what you’ve said, and to ask if they have any questions.
How to tell your children
You might be tempted to shield your children from your diagnosis, but hiding your cancer isn’t a good idea. Kids can sense when something is wrong at home. Not knowing can be more frightening than learning the truth.
The way you share the news of your cancer depends on your child’s age. For children under 10, use simple and direct language. Tell them that you have cancer in your breast, that your doctor will treat it, and how it might affect their daily life. You may want to use a doll to point out the areas of your body where the cancer has spread.
Young children often take personal responsibility when bad things happen to people they love. Reassure your child that they’re not responsible for your cancer. Also, let them know that cancer isn’t contagious — they can’t catch it like a cold or stomach bug. Ensure them that no matter what happens, you’ll still love them and care for them — even if you might not have the time or energy to play games with them or take them to school.
Explain how your treatment might affect you, too. Let them know your hair might fall out, or you could feel sick to your stomach — just like they do when they eat too much candy. Knowing about these side effects in advance will make them less scary.
Older children and teens can handle more details about your cancer and its treatment. Be prepared when you have the discussion to answer some difficult questions — including whether you’re going to die. Try to be honest. For example, you might tell them that while your cancer is serious, you’re going to be on treatments that will help you live longer.
If your child has trouble absorbing your diagnosis, schedule an appointment with a therapist or counselor.
How to tell your friends
Deciding when to tell your friends about your diagnosis is up to you. It might depend on how often you see them or how much support you need. Start by telling your closest friends, and then work outward to the more distant reaches of your social circle.
Often, close friends and neighbors will respond by offering to help. When they ask, don’t be afraid to say yes. Be specific about what you need. The more detailed you are, the more likely you’ll be able to get the help you need.
In the early days after your diagnosis, the responses might overwhelm you. If you can’t handle the flood of phone calls, emails, personal visits, and texts, it’s fine to not respond for a while. Let your friends know you need a little time. They should understand.
You might also assign one or two people to serve as your “communication directors.” They can update your other friends on your condition.
How to tell your co-workers and boss
Going through cancer treatment will undoubtedly have some impact on your ability to work — especially if you have a full-time job. Because of this, you’ll need to tell your supervisor about your cancer, and how it could affect your job.
Find out what accommodations your company can make to help you do your job while you’re undergoing treatment — like letting you work from home. Plan for the future, too, if and when you might not be well enough to work.
Once you’ve had the discussion with your boss, talk to human resources (HR). They can fill you in on your company’s policy about sick leave and your rights as an employee.
Beyond your manager and HR, you can decide who else — if anyone — to tell. You might want to share the news with the co-workers who are closest to you, and who’ll have your back if you need to miss work. Only share as much as you’re comfortable with.
What to expect
It’s impossible to predict how your family and friends will respond to your news. Everyone reacts to a cancer diagnosis differently.
Some of your loved ones will cry and express fear that they could lose you. Others might be more stoic, offering to be there for you no matter what happens. Lean on the ones who step in to help, while giving the others time to adjust to the news.
If you still aren’t sure how to approach the conversation, a counselor or therapist can help you find the right words.