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. Community support is also available through the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Survivors Network (CSN). CSN can provide peer support for people with cancer, survivors, caregivers, families, and friends, and a safe place to connect with others.

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.

  • Tonda Jackson/Healing1

    Thank you so much because I’ve known for a week and I’m just not ready and this article really helped.

  • Pat Lupori

    My husband was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, and the prognosis was bad. 90% of his bone marrow was cancerous. We had three days to get everything in order and get to the hospital. That same week end I got a call to come back for a breast ultrasound. I managed to get in immediately for the ultrasound, but when they told me I needed a biopsy I fell apart. We had just told the kids about their father’s diagnosis. There was no way I could share this news with them, or with him. I delayed the biopsy until we got through his initial treatment. I had to tell my sister about three weeks after I got the news just because I needed someone I could talk to. We got to come home about five weeks after he entered the hospital. They scheduled my biopsy immediately after we got home. I finally told my husband the day I went for the biopsy. My sister was here to help and she was much appreciated. The biopsy ended up with good news, but the month of worry about it was horrible. I had previously had bladder cancer. Just couldn’t deal with anything more at that time. I did get a diagnosis of breast cancer three years later. By that time, my husband was in remission and had received a stem cell transplant (bone marrow). The kids and I are much better about dealing with this kind of news now.

  • Gail

    I lost my husband to Glioblastoma brain cancer April 2019. He survived 3 years. The grieving process had begun in April 2016. This type of cancer takes a little bit of person you were daily. An emotional journey. Still grieving the loss of my soulmate in October, I got the call back to redo my mammogram of the left breast. I wasn’t too worried because it happened years prior. Although this time felt a bit ominous. If the image showed something more, I’d have an ultrasound and then possibly a biopsy if the ultrasound showed more. Sure enough I would soon be on my way for the ultrasound. All so surreal. This can’t be happening to me. I just lost my husband to Glioblastoma and now me. What about my girls. How are they going to handle the possibility of another loss of another parent? My youngest is an ultrasound tech. With her expertise she told me to get a copy of the image for her to look at. She told me she was not a doctor but it didn’t look good. My daughter found a well recommended doctor for the biopsy and my surgeon. Sharing with her helped me to prepare for the dreaded news of breast cancer. I am an open book sharing my news with family, friends, and coworkers. I was still an emotional wreck! I’d lost my husband to cancer, I am now diagnosed with cancer, and chose to have a double mastectomy and no reconstruction was just another loss. Coming to terms with it was a process. Sharing, reading information, prayer, taking photos of my breasts, and breast print paintings on canvas was healing. It allowed me to move forward with positivity and no regrets with my decisions. Oh and of course the birth my my first grandchild in July of 2019 brought joy to my life and pushed me through some of those challenging sad days. I am now cancer free (as of now) and breast free 2 years later alive and well.

  • Mary Ann Lipat

    I had breast cancer 23 years ago. I was separated from my husband at the time. My youngest son was just to start his freshman year of high school. I waited till I had the results of the biopsy before I told all 3 of my sons. I told them in person and put a positive spin on it. This is what I have and this is what surgery I will have etc. I felt given the situation with their Dad I hade to be in control and strong. Now 23 years later I am scheduled for a biopsy on the other breast. I am going to wait for the results of the biopsy and then tell them . I also have a support group that I will talk to but after the diagnosis. We have to zoom now and I should know when we have the next mtg. Meanwhile I can call any of them if I decide I need support anytime. Ladies consider a support group.

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  • Pamela

    Since my brother was in the hospital when I found out, he and my sister-in-law were the first ones I told. It hadn’t hit me yet, so it seemed easy. Next was my boyfriend. He seemed rather matterof fact about it, so I cried and he said don’t worry until after surgery. Next was my best friend. She went through Breast cancer a few years ago and she knew just what to say and ask. She knew my Dr and releived my mind, I was in good hands. Next I told another friend, because she was in the car with me when I got a phone call scheduling my CT Scan and wondered what was going on. She didn’t have much to say other than she agreed with me NOT to tell my 4 kids until after surgery, which was in 4 days. Today, 2 days before surgery, my daughter-in-law called about my granddaughters Fund Raiser for Volleyball. Asking me to come up (to Grand Rapids) to watch her game and especially during SENIOR NIGHT, quite a Special occasion. I told her I couldn’t commit because of some upcoming Dr appointments. Of course she was curious, and being a Therapist and Social worker she pressed for some info, so I told her. She was great and agreed that if it would be more stressful to tell my kids, then, no, I should wait. So 2 more days and I can come clean with everyone. I’m sure they will be upset and probably mad that I didn’t tell them. I’ll deal with that later!!

  • KB

    I’m 73 now. I knew for 6 months before official diagnosis that I had breast cancer. That in itself is a long story. In telling my three adult sons (by telephone) I was as straightforward as I always am, and they were very supportive. I believe my own strength and positive attitude helped them to worry less.

    I’ve been NED since the mastectomy Oct 2019 and I give all the credit to God. From the beginning of this journey my trust has been in Him to take me on the path He has planned for me. That trust has never wavered and never will.


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  • Linda Bennett

    Telling my children about being diagnosed with cancer was the most difficult thing I ever had to do. I did tell them first, that I was having some tests done and that made it easier to discuss my diagnosis. They were already aware that there might be a problem before we got the results. My family was amazingly suportive.

  • 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!