How to Tell Your Family You Have Cancer

If you are diagnosed with cancer, it can feel stressful and daunting trying to find the words to say, especially to those who are closest to you. 

During this time it’s important to remember that talking can help, and it’s okay to lean on your family and friends for support. 

While there isn’t always a simple way to discuss your health, there are steps you can take to make the process easier. In this article, we share suggestions on how to tell your family about your cancer diagnosis.

Check in With Yourself

Before discussing your health with loved ones, it’s important to check in with yourself. Do you need more time? How do you feel? Not knowing the answers is perfectly fine, but acknowledging where you stand is a great first step. 

Journaling, writing, painting, or any other creative outlet is a great first step to practice conveying your emotions. You don’t need to put your feelings into words immediately, everything comes with practice and time.

Determine a Comfortable Location

You may consider planning a certain time and location to discuss your health with your family. Breaking the news is never easy on both sides, but you can choose a good time to minimize any extra stress. 

You may choose a place where you know you and your family will both be comfortable. Plan beforehand and know that you don’t have to have all of the answers. You also do not need to tell anyone right away.

Tell a Close Friend First

It can be nerve-wracking deciding how to break difficult news to your family. Consider practicing what you’ll say with a friend you trust first. Discussing this with them and practicing your words can help minimize the discomfort that comes with talking about your health. Test the waters before taking the plunge, so to speak. 

Be Honest

Oftentimes being vulnerable around family is one of the most difficult things to do. While it is challenging, try to focus on being transparent with what is happening, how you’re feeling, and what you need. Find those who listen, and know that you are not a burden. 

Being honest opens up space for you to talk about what you are going through, but it can take time to feel completely ready for vulnerability. Give yourself time, and know that there are people there to listen when you are ready. 

While practicing with a friend can be helpful, simply writing down hard conversations before they happen can help give you a sense of control. Consider creating a list of your talking points to ensure that you know exactly what you want to say. 

Most importantly, be prepared for pushback. Family members may have alternative suggestions for what you should do moving forward, or they may not know how to respond. Know that their pushback comes from a place of love and support, but ultimately, you can decide what you want. 

“You need to be as honest with your family as you can. Some will not want to hear what you say no matter what. Find those who do listen. Talking about your health challenges or those of a loved one helps you also. Talking about challenges with others helps me keep a good perspective on my life.”

Karen B.M.

Be Open to Questions

Sometimes it can be hard to gauge how others will react to the news of cancer. Creating an open space for your loved ones to express how they are feeling after hearing your news can strengthen your support bond.

Remember that this moment only comes when you are ready, and creating open communication does not come overnight. It’s okay to feel nervous to hear your family’s worries, and it’s also okay to tell them this.

Ask a Close Friend to Take Notes

From a family member’s perspective, it can be shocking to hear about a loved one’s health condition. Because of this, important details can often get lost in translation when the words “I have cancer” are echoing through everyone’s ears. 

To ensure that everyone stays on the same page, even after the hard conversation is over, ask a close friend to come with you to take notes. Be prepared for questions after the conversation, and know that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”

Delegate Spreading the News

The thought of breaking the news to extended family and friends can feel overwhelming and emotional. If you choose to break the news to your close family, consider appointing one or two family members to spread the news to others. 

To make this process easier, consider starting a CaringBridge site. While constant questions about a health journey show that family and friends care, answering them and sharing health news over and over is exhausting. Take this task off of your plate with CaringBridge, an easy-to-use and free online Journal for sharing health messages with loved ones—all in one place.

Don’t go through your health journey alone.

You can stay connected to friends and family, plan and coordinate meals, and experience love from any distance.

All of this is ready for you when you start your personal CaringBridge site, which is completely free of charge, ad-free, private and secure. Don’t spend another minute alone!

A great alternative to delegating the spread of news is filming videos explaining your situation to send to family and friends. If you are struggling to find the words to say in person, consider rehearsing and recording a video that covers all of your talking points. 

You are not obligated to tell anyone about your situation, but sending videos to loved ones may be a good first step. This allows people outside of your closest family and friends to stay informed and involved with your journey.

Learn Your Trigger Points 

If there are topics surrounding your health that are too difficult to discuss, you by no means need to confront them. If someone asks, simply say “I’m not quite ready to talk about that yet, can we please talk about something else?” 

Everyone has different pressure points. Expressing to your family when you’re uncomfortable creates room for understanding and support. Take your time opening up, you’ll know when you are ready.

How Did You Share Your Story? 

We want to hear your stories. How have you told a loved one some hard health news? How did it go? If you feel like sharing, we’d love to hear your story in the comments below.

  • Stacie Votaw

    I don’t have cancer. But have a fatal illnes that is aggressive and will tear me in a few months, if not a couple of years.

    I don’t have close relationship with any of my family members. But I would like them to be able to know what’s going on with me. At least they could have a place to check if they ever become curios. And it prevents me from feeling like I’m intruding on their lives by texting or calling or emailing.

  • Chrissy

    I was thinking that the news of my cancer would effect my family more . I did not want to tell them, but they found out from another family member. The only one I told. They did not show too much concern. I have to say that I was taken a bit back by it and they don’t seem to be too concerned even now. I admit that although I’m relieved from the stress of thinking it would devastate them, no reaction seems odd to me. I did feel somehow hurt that they did not react in any way and that they don’t feel the need to check on me. It would be a lie if I said otherwise. I do know that when my own mother had cancer…twice, I was by her side and took such good care of her. I pray that they stay well and never experience what I am going through both physically and emotionally….so, in my case, there does not seem to be any difficulty . I have to say that as much as it made me feel less connected, I prefer this to them being unhappy because of it. That would make me very unhappy.

  • Teresa Dettman

    I first was told by an ER doctor that I had cancer last June but it was not definitive. After being referred to an oncologist and having multiple tests, scans, biopsies and surgery, I was diagnosed with Primary Peritoneal cancer.

    Because it was not definitive at first, I held off from telling any family members other than my husband. I didn’t want them going through the roller coaster of emotions like I did. It was definitely hard at times to keep it from them and act “normal.” I especially did not look forward to telling my 86 year old Mom since we had lost my older sister, my Dad and my Mom’s husband in the past year and a half.

    Since completing chemo, I still don’t share every time I have another blood test or scan until afterwards if turns out good. If and when the cancer does return I’ll have to once again figure out how to approach letting them know.

    So far so good!