Cancer brings many changes and with it the need to share information with others. Deciding if and how to share cancer-related information can be challenging. At times you may feel motivated to share details of your cancer with others, but at other times you may feel pressured to do so. Remember, you are in control of the information. Cancer can bring a loss of control, but when it comes to information, you get to choose how to share it, who to share it with, and how to share it. Disclosing cancer-related information can also be complicated by cultural factors and family history that might raise feelings of shame or concern for others.
Before deciding to share with others, allow yourself the time you need to process information about your cancer or treatment. Ask yourself if you fully understand the information and whether you’re able to express your emotions about it. Having a good grasp of the information can help you identify who else you want or need to tell.
When considering sharing your cancer diagnosis with others, consider where they exist in your social circle, how much you trust them, and what they need to know to support you. Sharing information can take emotional energy including worrying about a loved one’s reaction, wanting to soothe or protect others, and educating others on your needs. Consider what you want them to know, adding details if desired over time. Consider how vulnerable you want to be and what feels comfortable. If you’re not sure, share less rather than more.
Not every person in your life needs the same amount of information, and not every person will serve the same role in your support system. Some friends and family might only need practical information as they support you with transportation to an appointment, while individuals in your closer emotional support network may need more information about how you’re coping.
Tips for sharing your cancer diagnosis or sensitive health information with others
- Visualize the conversation in your mind beforehand. Picture what you and the other person will look like. Imagine different things he or she may say and how you will respond. These exercises can help reduce anxiety about sharing.
- Set the scene and choose a time and place that is comfortable for you which will help you be genuine.
- Consider your current mood when you’re sharing vulnerable information. Strong emotions can complicate communicating information: maybe you’ll share too much or not at all depending on how you feel at that moment. If you have a strong feeling that may impact how and what you share, take a step back and consider if it’s the best time to share this information.
- As you prepare to share, let the person know that you are sharing something difficult or emotional. These types of “warning shots” include:
- I have something important to tell you
- This is hard for me to tell you
- This might be upsetting for us to discuss
- This might come as a shock
- This is very vulnerable for me
- State what is happening and pause before you go into the details so that the other person has time to process what you are saying.
Considerations for ongoing cancer-related communication After your initial conversation with a friend or family member, consider updating them with new cancer-related information along the way. Cancer can be difficult to discuss, but over-sharing or hiding information can cause distress. Strike a balance between sharing within your comfort limits while answering questions and providing enough detail to allow your friends and family to support you. People in your life may share information about your cancer with others. Anticipating this and using some of the tools below may help communicate information that is both accurate and within your comfort zone.
- It can be exhausting to share information with others even when you want to. Some people send periodic email updates to a group or use a free information-sharing site like CaringBridge, MyLifeline, and PostHope to provide medical updates. Benefits include giving you control over what you share, reducing the need to immediately respond or care for others’ reactions, and saving your emotional energy by not repeatedly sharing the same update with others. You can also designate a caregiver to help update these sites to further reduce the communication burden.
- Side effects of treatment and cancer can be noticeable to others and reveals your illness even when you don’t want to share. You are still in control of what you say and how you welcome or deflect questions from others.
- Have a selection of “back-pocket phrases” that you can use when you want to transition a conversation away from the details of your diagnosis or treatment. Examples include:
- “This is a cancer-free event for me. I’m focused on being here right now.”
- “I’ve reached my daily limit for cancer-related conversations.”
- “Cancer requires a lot of my energy, and right now I want to spend that energy on this activity/event.”
- “Thanks for your concern, but I promised myself some cancer-free time. Let’s talk about [topic] instead.”
- “There are ups and downs. Today is a good day but others are difficult. This has been a lot for me, but I am getting through it.”
Setting boundaries Cancer can feel like an intrusion into your life and your body, but you do have control over what you share, your behaviors, and your thoughts. Setting physical or emotional boundaries can be an important consideration in your communication strategy. You have the right to change your needs and boundaries frequently. Asking for what you need can be challenging, but phrases that help include:
- “This is hard for me to say…”
- “I need…”
- “I wish it was different but right now I need…”
- “I’m trying to take care of myself, and right now I need…”
Sharing your cancer in a work setting You may also decide to share information about your cancer with coworkers, your manager, or the HR department. While sharing information about your cancer – especially if you’re on treatment that requires time away from work for appointments and side effect management – can help your manager understand what you’re going through, you are not obligated to share details about your health. You may, however, need to provide some information to access leave and disability benefits. Triage Cancer offers comprehensive information related to work and employment rights.
Getting support Iris Mental Health Therapists can assist you with language to talk about cancer, and how to tailor what you share with others. They can also help to normalize the feelings of vulnerability and explore anxiety and difficult emotions related to cancer. You can schedule a session from the home page of the Iris app.
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Reviewed by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board
This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.