How to Tell Loved Ones About Your Breast Cancer

Get the support you need from family and friends by communicating your diagnosis effectively

woman and older woman talk in the park

If you were recently diagnosed with breast cancer, you might feel a bit nervous about broaching such a difficult subject with friends and family. 

But you shouldn't be. In fighting the disease, your loved ones can be your biggest supporters and allies. 

Of course, in order to ensure those closest to you are able to help you properly, there are a few things to keep in mind before sharing your diagnosis, says Julie Larson, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in New York City. Before starting her private practice, Julie was the Young Adult Program Director at CancerCare. She continues to speak regularly at cancer survivorship conferences on the mental and emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis.

Larson offered these nine insights from her work with breast cancer patients.

1. Understand Yourself First

“All communication begins with understanding yourself,” says Larson. She recommends asking yourself these three questions following a diagnosis:

A. Do I understand all that I need to know about my medical diagnosis of breast cancer? If something is unclear, reach out to your doctor as soon as possible.

B. Do I understand how I feel right now, so I’m ready and able to tell someone else? Consider writing your feelings down and reading them to yourself in a quiet place. Once you’re able to articulate these emotions and thoughts in full, you’re likely ready to tell another person.   

C. What do I really need from those around me during my journey? Are you going to potentially need caring for, or will you need to take a leave of absence from work? Will you need assistance in everyday living, or just emotional support? Again, if you don’t know answers to these questions, your doctor can help.

2. Know Who You’ll Talk to First

Who are you most comfortable revealing such a personal development to? “When you think about your history and other big moments in your life, who are those people you know respond to you in a way that makes you feel understood, in a way you feel supported and cared for?”

When you’ve identified those family and friends, set up a time to chat with them in person in the following weeks. Slowly add people as you begin to feel comfortable talking about your diagnosis.

3. Set the Tone

When you’ve selected your target audience, decide what kind of attitude and approach you’ll take that you want others to follow. Maybe the tone is optimistic and funny, or maybe it’s quiet and reserved. Some people you tell may try to steer the conversation. “Unfortunately, it’s on you to teach other people how you want to be treated and cared for in the way you communicate this,” says Larson. “Your tone of voice sends subtle communication hints to others.”

4. Stick to the Basics

When you first tell someone about your diagnosis, you may want to keep it simple and grounded in the step you are on today. What you’ll say depends on your personality and the personality of the person you’re telling.

If you’re stuck for what to say, Larson recommends this: “I just heard back from my doctor and I got some pretty tough news. I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. And I’m still learning what that means and my treatment plan, but I just wanted to let you know because you’re an important part of my team.”

“At the beginning, you don’t need to say much more,” adds Larson.

5. Prepare for Unexpected Reactions

Not everyone will react to the news the way you expect them to. Some may even make awkward or hurtful comments. “People can have a lot of strong opinions about your treatment,” warns Larson.

Having to manage other people’s reactions can be exhausting, so it helps to have an elevator speech for those times, says Larson. For unsolicited advice, Larson recommends: “Thanks, but I have a great medical team. I have a great treatment plan.”

Of course, if someone doesn’t offer you the kind of support you need, or makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t feel pressured to continue staying in contact with them regarding your diagnosis or treatment.

6. Take the Long Approach

“Talking about cancer is never just one conversation,” says Larson. “Over time, you can add more information.” It’s also okay to re-evaluate what you’ll share and who you’ll share it with.

7. Appoint a Contact Person

As your treatment progresses, you may get overwhelmed, or simply not feel well enough to keep up with conversations. Your priority should be on getting well. “Let other people know that if they can’t reach you, that it’s okay to reach this person,” says Larson.

8. Don’t Feel Pressured to Post

In an era of oversharing and social media posts, some breast cancer patients may feel pressure to make sweeping announcements over Facebook or Twitter. But the extent to how much, or how little, you share is entirely up to you. “There is no right or wrong,” says Larson. “It’s a very personal thing and it’s based on who you are and your history.”

9. Consider Blogging

Whether through social media or on a personal website, another way to communicate your diagnosis is through a personal blog. It’s not for everyone, says Larson, but many find that it’s a good way of coping with their cancer diagnosis and also sharing their journey with friends and family.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan to communicate your breast cancer diagnosis. “If you start with self-reflection, it helps to smooth communication throughout your treatment,” says Larson.