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Q&A on telling someone you have cancer - Questions answered by oncology social worker Marlene Quinlan, LICSW

December 07, 2015
Marlene Quinlan consults with a patient

By Marlene Quinlan, LICSW for the Daily Hampshire Gazette

(Published in print: Tuesday, Dec. 1)

Telling friends and family you have cancer can be as stressful as hearing the diagnosis from your doctor. You are carrying a big weight on your shoulders, but telling people about your diagnosis will hopefully ease that burden. Also, this is a time when you are going to need the comfort and support of friends and family. How do you tell your partner, your children, your friends, or even your employer that you have cancer? There is no right time or way.

Following is a look at how to share you cancer diagnosis with others.

Q. Is there any right time or right way to tell someone you have cancer?

A. The news that you have a cancer diagnosis is a challenge. You are forced into a situation that requires immediate adjustments in your life. Demands are placed on your physical, emotional and spiritual reserves as you cope with your cancer. This is a time when you will have many questions and seek information and guidance to meet your needs and the needs of those who are close to you. Get your bearings by learning all that you can from your medical team about your treatment options, care, and what may or may not be right for you. Once you have the information you need, the task of telling others in your life is next.

It is common to wonder, “How do I go about doing this when I am still feeling overwhelmed with the situation myself?” The following general guidance will hopefully help you develop a disclosure plan that makes sense for you.

There are no set rules to follow and much of what a person decides to do is a matter of personal choice. There are some guidelines that might help, however. Consider beginning by recognizing who is the most important person in your life that you want to bring on board from the beginning. This person might be your spouse, partner, parent, or best friend. You can think of them as being in your inner circle. Typically, this disclosure would happen very soon after your cancer diagnosis. At this point, you might still be collecting information and may not have all the details. Give yourself permission to simply share what you know, and how you feel. Once informed, this person most likely would become your primary support and can attend medical appointments with you as you gather more information. He or she will come on board early and travel by your side for your cancer journey.

Now think about the people who occupy the next circle in terms of importance in your life. In this circle, you will find family and close friends. It might help to make a list of people that you feel would want to know. You can decide before you disclose any information how much you are comfortable sharing. You might want to prepare what to say and also think of the most practical process for delivering the information. For example, can you ask your partner or close friend who already has the information, to help you disclose the news? Once you decide what to share, either one of you could take on the task of sharing the news with the people on the list. After the initial disclosure about your diagnosis is made, be aware that your friends and relatives will want periodic updates. This is normal because they care about you. An effective way of keeping your friends and relatives informed is to use a free service called carepages.com, whatmattersnow.org or other similar sites.

Q. How do you tell your children that you have cancer?

A. If you have young children, you will need some extra preparation for the disclosure process. It is important to let your children know about your diagnosis early on. Children of all ages are perceptive and they quickly pick up on the stress level in the home. If they do not know what is going on, their imaginations will fill in the blanks, which can cause more difficulty for them than hearing the truth. Before you tell your children, give yourself some time to digest the information. Prepare a plan clarifying what you want to tell them. The best general advice in terms of telling your children is to state the facts simply and honestly, using language that your children will understand. Let them ask questions and provide answers that are simple and honest. Do not over-answer the question. If you are not prepared for a question they may ask, agree to get the answer and plan another time to meet. Establish a pattern of open, ongoing, honest communication. Ask someone close to you to be with you while you tell your children should you need support. Seek out help from your cancer team if you feel that you need more guidance with your children.

Q. What about disclosure at your workplace?

A. To receive time off from work, you will need to follow the policies of your workplace. This usually involves completing a written request for time off and providing a signed release from your doctor to disclose information to your employer. Your medical information is protected both in the medical setting and with your employer. You will need to decide if you want to share any of your medical information with your work colleagues. If you are concerned about your privacy, you will need to determine who will keep your information safe, as these personal disclosures may not be protected legally. You may have a circle of friends at work who are important to you and they may, in fact, be supportive and helpful to you while you are in treatment.

Cancer Q&A, which appears monthly, is written by doctors and other caregivers from the Baystate Regional Cancer Program. Marlene Quinlan, LICSW is an oncology social worker there.

Photo: Marlene Quinlan, LICSW